Confessions of a Functioning Tech Addict

A cautionary tale for those of us who think we are already mindfully engaging with our technology.

Photo: Roy Rochlin

I am ashamed to admit it but I am a hypocrite. I’ve nagged my husband when he is on his phone at dinner, I’ve judged strangers who sit at restaurants staring at their phones and not each other and I’ve felt sad when I see people on a beautiful place like the beach in Cabos San Lucas looking at their phones. Who are these people? Don’t they know the effects cell phones have on us and our relationships? How could they do this to themselves? Don’t they know how to be present? I am not like that, I would smugly think, I am not addicted.

For starters, I leave my phone in my purse when I go to dinner with friends, I don’t walk on the NYC sidewalks while looking at my phone (I stop and move out of the way when I need to look at it) and on some date nights, my husband and I leave our phones at home so we can really connect. Mind you, I also don’t have the Facebook app installed (although what difference does it make when my safari is always on facebook.com?) AND I don’t use snapchat AND I only post an average of 2 posts a week on Instagram. So how could this happen to me?

How come I found myself, about 2 weeks ago, 5 minutes after particularly great sex, irking for my phone? Or staring at it while visiting my family who lives in another country? How come I had started turning on my phone on airplanes before we have touched the ground even though I am scared of flying? How come I check my phone compulsively for hours on end and sometimes, when I’m hanging out with friends with my phone out of sight, I feel a slight sense of relief when I can be alone again — just me and my phone.

My husband was the first one to complain about it, so naturally I didn’t really think it was serious because I thought he was just nagging me back. But days without a phone started to seem impossible.

I may very well be an addict, I thought, but I’m a highly functioning one if that. As a hyper-sensitive person who pries herself on meditating and enjoys time alone, what does it mean to my mental health when I am a phone addict? How could I listen to myself, sit with myself and in doing so, listen to others and be with others? And if I am functioning, then does it even matter that I am addicted?

Let’s start with what I do now, in the middle of conversations. Lately, I realized that whenever I’m listening to another person, I interrupt my listening by getting my phone out to email myself reminders of the conversation. For example, if someone is talking about a great restaurant they went to, I want to email myself the name so I can look for it next time I’m looking for a new place to eat. I’ll be frank, I rarely look for the name later. What I certainly do is interrupt myself, distract the storyteller and make my inbox a visual nagging list of to dos mirroring my scattered brain.

But, sometimes I am able to snap out of this distraction- like this past weekend, where I had one of those conversations with a dear friend that spans everything and anything. We were sitting on my couch, our phones nowhere in sight, discussing politics, art, identity, what we want to work on and the things we are scared of. It was wonderful. Afterwards, we exchanged these texts:

Our meeting happened on Inauguration Day, as you can see

and that was that.

So I am definitely able to snap out of my addiction. Then is it really that bad? I can listen. I can have deep conversations. The question becomes- how often am I able to listen? How many conversations with myself and others am I missing out of and in doing so, what do I lose?

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who studies the effect of technology on our relationships, notes in her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”, that we’ve mostly found ways around conversations that are “open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.”

I don’t want to find ways around conversations. I want to reclaim solitude. I want to know who I am. I want to live without the temptation of constant connection to others that makes me miss potential connections in real life. I don’t know how to go back to the times where not looking at my phone for two hours was not an achievement, where my family had conversations instead of sitting together looking at phones, where seeing friends did not include showing each other pictures on the phones. But of course, I can’t go back in time. We are where we are and technology is where it is. What I can do, however, is created new intentions for myself. By accepting that I am vulnerable to the addictive powers of my phone, I can set an intention to be mindful about the ways I choose to use it. We are all vulnerable.

Maybe some will help you and maybe some just apply to me. Here are my new and improved intentions for myself in relationship to my phone:

1- When I feel the urge to look at my phone, I will sit with the urge for a minute instead of looking at the phone immediately.

2- Keep the phone off dinner tables at restaurants and at home.

3- Walk mindfully — that means walk without looking at a phone. If I need to look at it (for directions, for example) step off to the side, look at it and put it away. Resume walking.

4- When I go to a live event, use my phone to take some pictures (max 10) and some videos (max 3) but then, enjoy the experience -be in the moment.

5- When I am in conversation and someone mentions something interesting that I feel I want to email to myself to remember, don’t. Trust that if it is good enough to remember, I will.

6- Recommit to my 10 minute morning meditation so in case all of this fails, I can still have that chunk of time for myself- technology free.

It’s been shocking to admit to myself how addicted I really am. It’s made me realize that just because you have taken some actions in the past to be mindful, does not mean your work is done. We have to be willing to adapt as fast as technology is. Protecting our relationships to each other and to technology is a constant choice.