To See One’s Reflection In Their Black Mirror

Quelling an addiction and considering value in a blank screen.


In late 2011, screenwriter Charlie Brooker introduced the television show Black Mirror to the world that had yet to fully embrace smartphones. In fact, in Q3 of 2014 there were nearly as many smartphones sales as the entirety of 2011 when the series was released. The show is a Twilight Zone-like experience but one far more intimate and scary because it deals with the darkness of something that’s very close to us — our smartphones. Brooker explained the title of the series:

If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area — between delight and discomfort — is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.

After watching the whole series and later reading that bit about the title, it sent chills down my spine. Many of us couldn’t imagine living life without our smartphones these days, and my own addiction has been a constant struggle. I’ve written on numerous occasions about this and how I try to keep the undying urges under control. The harsh truth though is that smartphone addiction is real, affects so many, and that notifications have roughly the same effect on the brain as drugs.

Getting a fix

A few years ago Psychology Today gave a solid writeup on why we’re addicted to texts and notifications: dopamine. It’s a critical chemical that our body creates that affects many functions, not the least of which happens to be hits to the reward centers of our brains.

Each time a message arrives with a screen flash and a vibration, it’s a drug-like hit. Having turned off “like” notifications a long time ago, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have those hit my screen too. Additionally, notifications are a perfect storm for dopamine, which is also stimulated by unpredictability. The fact that the notifications we receive aren’t scheduled mean the hits are more powerful. This also has connection to a phenomenon called “intermittent reinforcement” which may make it harder to simply walk away and escape these feelings. Hat tip to my friend Monica for that one.

While some can exert more self control, it can be hard to escape the nature of our brain chemistry. However, I’ve recently found a friend in this fight, an oft-forgotten feature of iOS called “Do Not Disturb.” What follows is a guide to it, and regaining control of our phones, and our minds.

While I haven’t used it personally, it looks like Android Lollipop has introduced a similar feature.

Taking Control

Do Not Disturb on iOS 8

What Do Not Disturb does is simple: it prevents incoming phone calls and notifications from waking up the screen. This also goes beyond just silencing your phone by preventing vibration.

While Do Not Disturb has been a feature of iOS for a while, the most recent iteration in iOS 8 made an important change, seen in the last line of the screenshot.

Silence: Always

This additional feature of Do Not Disturb makes it so that while the phone is in use, notifications aren’t displayed. Those that do arrive are collected in Notification Center for later use. By selecting “Always” vs. “Only while iPhone is locked” you’ll eliminate distractions while using the phone.

Do Not Disturb is easy to activate any time by swiping up from the bottom to reveal iOS’s Control Center

When Silence Always was introduced it dramatically changed the way that I use apps like Instapaper and Kindle, enabling distraction-free reading while using my phone. It also meant no longer needing my Kindle Paperwhite for distraction-free reading. Note: obviously you could also use Airplane Mode but it would prevent anyone from getting in touch with you at all, even in an emergency.

Focus finally within reach

I’m now free to enjoy more activities while using my phone simply because I can have more immediate control over inbound distractions. Instapaper has become one of my most-used apps after this. Throughout the day I might collect interesting links into it and later sit down for a nice session of reading. Headspace has been another nice addition to my phone after discovering this — it’s an app that improves mindfulness through a guided meditation. Can you imagine trying to meditate while your phone constantly buzzes?

Banksy’s “Mobile Lovers”

Being Present

More important than everything I’ve mentioned above, Do Not Disturb makes it far more easy to make yourself more present in social situations.

While some can resist the temptation of checking their phones after a “buzz buzz” in their pocket, I am not one of those individuals. Just knowing that there’s some notification waiting for me after it’s gotten my attention through vibration gives me stress. My mind can’t at all escape the idea that I should check it.

Years ago when I was back home in Illinois for Christmas, my brother expressed his anger at me for seeming to be more concerned with the happenings on my phone than simply paying attention to my family. For a long time I think denial was easier than accepting that I actually had a problem with it. This summer I was having beers with two friends who I don’t see often. One thing both mentioned to me was that they were happy to see that I was checking my phone dramatically less. We’ll call that one a small victory.

Now while in meetings, with friends or family, on a date, etc., Do Not Disturb has become a great ally. Flipping that switch is almost like turning off any potential anxiety that might arise. It’s hard not to stress just how transformative this has been. It makes you so much more aware of others and just how much smartphone addiction is affecting everyone.

It’s important to note that I’m by no means “cured” nor think that it’s all easily within reach. But recognition and developing coping mechanisms have worked wonders for me.

I hope that, like addiction to substances, as a society we’ll become more aware to the dangers and consequences of our smartphones. It can be chilling understanding just how pervasive their grasp already is–just have a look around at any bar, any restaurant, any concert, etc. and you’ll see that cold glow lighting up everyone’s faces. The temporary hits that we get from consuming our phones comes to the detriment of our psyche and our relationships. For now, Do Not Disturb is my defense.

We face our black mirror constantly.
To not see a reflection is to have left with your presence.