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A plan for treating Smartphone addiction

Why allowing for unmediated and idle moments in our lives is essential.

Let’s face it. The majority of Americans are addicted. Spurred on by the need to feel connected, and always with the nagging suspicion that we just quite aren’t, we turn to our phones for solace and as a means to fill our idle moments with action.

When was the last time you allowed for an idle moment in your life? And by “idle”, I mean without checking your phone. Yeah, guilty as charged. We all do it. But seriously. When was the last time you sat somewhere or took a walk, and spent time with your own thoughts? The very notion makes most people squirm.

The site of people checking their phones in times of idleness (i.e., traffic, grocery store lines, in transit), and not-so-idleness (i.e., walking through busy city streets), has become over the last decade almost that of an iconic cultural image. A “sign of the times.” The slouched consumer, head down, screen aglow, fingers furiously zigzagging across back-lit glass, oblivious to the world around them, and numb to their thoughts.

In essence, technology and consumerism have conspired, somewhat knowingly, to create an addictive device that acts as a mass societal itch that constantly needs scratching. Just like a smoker craving that next drag, our smartphones act as a means to eliminate the uncomfortable pangs of idle time, and consequently, boredom from our lives.

You might be wondering, “So what. Why is this important? Isn’t it a good thing not to be bored? Why would I want to sit around all day and do nothing?”

There are two parts to answering this criticism. First, idleness, a word synonymous with boredom to many, is essential to the development of creativity and connection with ourselves. Second, the amount of “screen time” in people’s daily lives is a factor showing up in scientific studies looking at people’s ability to concentrate, remember, and delay gratification. Because the technology is so young, the science is still inconclusive, but there are indicators of it having a potential long-term, negative impact.

Why is idleness (or boredom to some) important for the mind? Moments of idleness, a time that used to be for thinking and contemplation, are now filled with screen time. These moments, which used to give our minds the exercise of making new connections and ideas, are now monopolized by digital pixels of influence.

Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.

The above quote by Maria Popova comes from a post she wrote about Kierkegaard’s writings on boredom, and zeroes in on one ailment of modern western civilization.

We have adopted a new form of dealing with time, which Popova calls, “active idleness.” Because of technological advances in many areas of human existence, our perception of time has sped up to such a degree that our patience for most things has generally decreased, and our willingness to accept anything short of instant gratification is limited.

We are disconnected from ourselves and our own minds. We don’t sit and think for fear it will be boring, and that we will miss something “important” going on in the world (via our screens.). As such, we look for constant activity as a means of “entertainment”, but underlying this desire to be entertained is really a fear of being bored and alone with our thoughts. Easier to check out mentally and play Candy Crush while waiting at the doctor’s office than to sit and think about…anything at all.

In examining Kierkegaard’s notion of boredom being not so much a lack of stimulation as a lack of meaning, Popova suggests this could have something to do with why in today’s culture, so many of us are “…overstimulated, but existentially bored.” So many of us are living consumerist lives which are continuously fueled and replenished by the hedonic treadmill, and part of the reason why we are in a perpetual state of mindlessness. We have so much to do, and so many things to occupy our time, but with so very little of this activity having any meaning at all.

The cycle seems to play out as follows:

We begin to experience the twangs of boredom and restlessness, and as a means of alleviating this feeling, we buy a new wardrobe, upgrade our cell phone, or buy a car. Depending on the size of the consumption, we are momentarily relieved of this boredom, and yet, it returns. The consuming never gets to the heart of the matter: that we are existentially bored, lacking true meaning and understanding of ourselves and our lives. The consumption is merely a false panacea that replays over and over again, until we are in mountains of debt, and ultimately, still bored.

The smartphone is now the gatekeeper and gateway to enabling this hedonic treadmill to continue. With the advent of “Smart pay” technology, spending digital currency (which is very much real), is achievable with such ease as to seem almost unreal, and without consequence.

As I mentioned at the outset, we’re all guilty to some degree of smartphone over usage. Some are more guilty than others. Are these devices going away any time soon? Most definitely not. In fact, the influx and influence of this technology on our lives in the coming decade(s) will only become even more pervasive. Let us not forget that the Iphone was only invented barely a decade ago, and Instagram only eight years ago.

For example, take the technological advances being made to the automobile. One of the last vestiges of solitude, where people had the opportunity to be alone and think, is now being altered by cars like the new Tesla Model 3, which features an interior console area not unlike a gigantic Ipad, and to which many of the main functions of the car are tied. In other words, not using it isn’t an option.

The point is, we can only control what we do and the choices we make for ourselves. Part of making good choices is having good information. With all the research out there indicating how these new technologies might be adversely affecting us as thinking, creative, empathetic, sociable creatures, we can’t say that we didn’t know better.

Next time you’re out at a restaurant, look at how many families are sitting together, yet alone, each on their own devices. Look at them and ask yourself, can this antisocial behavior really be of no consequence?

It may seem like a daunting prospect — not looking at our phones during idle moments. It’s just too easy. And once we’ve formed the habit, our brains crave it like it craves any other addictive stimuli.

Ignoring the urge to scratch that “itch” and avoid falling into “active idleness” is certainly not without struggle. I can attest to that. It’s only when the person behind me at an intersection is laying on the horn for not moving when the light turns green, or being nudged by the person behind me in the grocery check-out cue to “move up”, do I have a moment of epiphany and realize just how checked out I really am.

But there is hope.

Here are some things we can all do (including me) to allow for more presence and immediacy in our lives. They seem simple and straightforward, but if they were, and we all did them, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this.

  • Don’t take a phone into restaurants. Leave it in your car. And if you didn’t drive, leave it in your purse/pocket. Do not put it on the table (even face down). When someone goes to the restroom and you’re left alone at the table, resist the urge to fish it out, and just look around at the ever fascinating activity that is “people watching.”
  • Don’t take a phone into meetings. Workplace cohesion is built on trust and a sense of camaraderie. This is achieved slowly and through interpersonal interaction. The time just before a meeting starts, and everyone is waiting, is the best moment to further develop a work relationship with a colleague. Don’t waste that opportunity while staring at your phone.
  • Don’t use a phone while driving. This should be obvious for safety reasons, so don’t do it. Even while stopped.
  • Experience moments of brilliance through your eyes, not your phone. Next time you are at an event or experiencing some awesome moment of beauty (i.e., concerts, fireworks displays, sunsets, etc.), and you feel the need to capture it and share it with the outside world, resist the urge and just experience the moment for yourself and with those around you. Besides, concerts and fireworks never look that great on video anyway. No one’s ever that impressed by it. I promise.
  • Go for a walk without your phone. Before or after work one day, when the weather is nice, leave your phone behind and take a short 20-minute walk in your neighborhood. I all but guarantee you will discover something you didn’t know was there before.
  • Watch a movie at home without being on your phone. Again, this seems silly in a way that I even have to say this, but we all do it. Are you really watching a movie when half the time you’re not actually watching it?

There are no doubt other types of activities I’ve left out. The point here isn’t to to eliminate phone usage entirely, but to be more intentional with it and avoid using it as a time filler, social avoidance mechanism, or literal filter of the world around us. Try being conscious of this idea for just one day and see what happens. You might just find that you learn something new about yourself, others, or the world around you. And from there, you will have taken the first steps away from the curation and filtering of your life through a device, and towards really living it.

A version of this post was originally published on my blog - March 10, 2016.