Last year I came wonder if I had an addiction to my phone. It was after reading this article about smartphone use in teens. The research findings disturbed me. The idea of giving kids phones never set right with me, but I had never heard anyone really articulate why.
The author spoke about many of the ways that phones were not only changing the teenage experience, but causing widespread psychological distress in youth. I was feeling pretty solid about myself since my kids aren’t exactly teenagers with smartphones. That was someone else’s problem. But then the author pointed out that many of the behaviors surrounding young people’s phone use read like “a profile in obsession.” I read through the list, and boy, that finger turned around pretty quick. You should read it; I checked off quite a few of the descriptions.
I soon decided that my goal for 2018 would be to break what I felt was an addiction to my phone.
The fact that we had never let our kids play with phones or iPads had always been a security blanket for me. It made me feel ok about my parenting, screen-wise and all. (Of course, I guess it cancelled out all the Little Bear and Pixar I let them watch. That’s another post for another time).
I knew that the strange drive to constantly check my phone was weird, but I don’t think I fully understood how unhealthy my behavior had become. My “just checking”, my “wait one second” and my “I deserve this down time” was just addiction wrapped in a socially accepted package. The middle school version of myself kept wanting to whine about how it really isn’t a big deal because everyone else is doing it. Truth be told, I used my phone all the time to avoid or delay unpleasant tasks, many of them parenting-related. “Down time” was at random: whenever I was stressed, bored, or avoiding something. I felt anxious when my phone was away from me or the battery was dead. A general panic would ensue when I would misplace it. In awkward social moments, I would pretend to be engrossed in something important. It’s just what you do. The funny part is, it never made me feel more relaxed, more organized, or more important.
As for my kids, maybe they weren’t playing Candy Crush or fighting over the iPad, but second-hand screen use was posing a real a danger to our connection, especially in the critical early years of their development. So many things that had started out as conveniences years ago had slowly morphed into dire necessities. Somewhere along the way I had begun to feel a higher obligation to the red badges on my home screen than I did to the needs of my own children. One day I decided that I would try something new: not using my phone in the presence of my children unless it was an absolute necessity. Spoiler alert: a day passed and an absolute necessity never arose. But multiple times that day my daughter wrapped her arms around my neck and said “I love you mommy. You’re a good mommy.”
Our kids do see. They do know. We may have no actual idea how many hours we are spending on these things, but I would venture to suggest our kids feel it. I cannot imagine a childhood where my mom could disappear into a handheld virtual world at whim. I cringe to think how many times a day I was putting a phone between my face and the faces of my little ones for some “urgent” thing, or worse, absolutely no legitimate reason at all. It makes me want to cry to think about the wasted hours I could have been looking into the changing faces of my babies. Using my phone while nursing my babies is my number one regret and it breaks my heart.
THEN, oh then. I came across this story highlight on Instagram by Collin Kartchner. It is entitled #savethekids. We all need to watch this. It stoked the fire in me about what unmanaged smartphone use is doing to culture. These things are very powerful tools which we have placed in the hands of children whose brains are not yet developed enough to handle them. (Heck, ours barely are.) The stories are not exceptional; there are millions more like them. While I was writing this post, Collin posted a new story highlight entitled #savetheparents. Hundreds of parents are starting to say exactly what I am saying in this blog post. I believe that there is coming a time when we will collectively admit we have messed up and begin to push the pendulum the other way. It will have to begin with us; what is happening to kids is just the symptom of the underlying disease.
This prompted me to dive even further into my own research about screen use. I read a book called the Big Disconnect that convicted me up one side and down the other. It was incredibly painful, and yet I found myself wanting to highlight every sentence. Reading the author’s written descriptions of the obsessive way we use our phones was like looking into a mirror, and it was not real pretty. It confirmed to me that my behavior around my phone was unhealthy, socially accepted or not.
At the same time, I realize that we must also be kind to ourselves in this process. We are the first generation in history to parent with smartphones in our hands. This is uncharted territory for us all. Once we do begin to recognize there is a problem, we are going to have to give ourselves some time to generate healthy solutions.
Unfortunately, phones have become such a part of the fabric of our lives, that it takes a great deal of intention to think independently about the most beneficial way to use them. As a technology-embracing family, we had adopted the mindset that if it a feature was there, then well, we should use it! So David and I had to rewind and have some discussions about what features were actually bringing us value. I concluded that most of the time I was spending on my phone was worth almost nothing at all. We talked around in circles about the option of a flip phone or home phone.
I ended up deciding to keep my smartphone for several features; navigating with Google maps for one (as words like “north” and “southeast” mean literally nothing to me…as do maps that cannot talk.) I also wanted to continue to be able to take, edit and post photos on one device. I use Instagram to connect to my blog readers and the platform is only fully functional on a mobile device. I can tell you that if I weren’t trying to be a writer sharing on a visual platform, I’d be buying a GPS for my car and using a flip phone right now.
So with the decision made to keep my phone, the next question was what to do with all the rest of the iPhone features? Good news. The iPhone is not our master. We own it and we can push buttons on it to delete things, block things, and turn them off. We have options to remove features that distract us, while keeping the things that add value to our lives. We do not have to use our phones mindlessly.
Here are some really practical things I started doing to regain some balance in my life:
- Deleted useless apps. Is there literally not an app for every function of the prefrontal cortex now? Are you an actual business if you don’t have your own app? Can we perhaps live without a “news” app to ping us every time a Kardashian blinks? Sometimes it seems the only actual beneficiary is Apple, who gets 30% of every transaction in the app store. I listened to my inner Marie Kondo and deleted a boat load of ‘em.
- Turned off all notifications from every remaining app. I concluded that I have almost no use for little red badges that appear at random times giving me useless information as though there were an actual emergency. Can you imagine picking up your phone and not seeing any numbers or red dots? I didn’t know this was possible, but it is. This solitary action lowered anxiety and adrenaline levels I didn’t even know I had. When I push the home button on my phone, it is clean and clear; void of all red badges except for the occasional missed call. When I open my phone to do a task, it is 100% on me if I hop around opening other apps that do not pertain to what I’m trying to accomplish. (My phone is also going to be heinously behind on updates until my husband can no longer stand it and commandeers it for a forced update.)
- Put text messages in their place. I made a bold move and turned off text message previews and badges. Correct. I now have no red badge telling me how many unread messages I have. I have no idea whether I have unread texts unless I open the messaging app and look inside of it. I can do this because I am not a midwife or a first responder, I am a stay-at-home mom! I have the ability to check my phone with intention, on my time. Isn’t that sort of the point of what I’m supposed to be doing here? Why aren’t I? Texts are one of my biggest problems and this one action has helped me a great deal. I am never a worse parent than when I am engaged in a messaging exchange. The intense amount of focus it takes to engage in a meaningful conversation tapping around on that tiny keyboard is so high that I immediately feel anxious and irritated when I am interrupted by anyone or anything. The expectation for rapid-fire responses is way out of hand. The faster I respond, the more likely people are to send social banter to me on a regular basis. These days, I have been growing to appreciate picking up the phone and calling; an activity in which I do not need to explode my brain trying to converse while simultaneously thinking about spelling, grammar, and the perfect emoji to convey my tone and voice inflection.
- Put my phone Do Not Disturb unless I am expecting a call/my kids are away from me. As a stay-at-home mom there is almost no situation in which I need to respond immediately to a phone call. My phone stays on Do Not Disturb. For a true emergency, there is a switch in settings called Repeated Calls. Turn this on. Tell your people that if they call twice within two minutes, it will ring through. If my children are away from me, I will turn the ringer on and keep my phone around me!
- Removed my phone from my bedroom at night and from my main living area during the day. My phone now lives in my office next to my computer. I may or may not take it with me when I leave the house. Many times I leave it unless I need to navigate someplace or take photos where I’m going. If only it were attached to the wall with a coiled cord that you could slowly stretch over time by going around the corner for “privacy.” Not only do I lose my phone a lot less, but I am 100% less likely to make compulsive or emotionally-charged statements on text. I also made one of the best $14.99 investments of my life on Amazon dot com and purchased a huge digital alarm clock to set next to my bed. I cannot explain to you the peace that came into my sleeping space when I did this. There’s really no way to describe the difference; you’ll just have to try it and see what I mean.
- Stopped using my phone as a watch. I bought an actual watch which I look at when I need to see what time it is. Before this, I was “checking the time” on my phone a lot. This would ultimately lead to opening my texts, email or social media, often without even remembering what I had picked it up for in the first place.
- Stopped having my phone out when my kids are around. This is called second-hand screen use and it is taking our families. (You can read about this in the book I mentioned above The Great Disconnect.) Years ago I recognized changes in my kids’ behavior whenever I used my laptop around them during the day. I eventually just stopped using my computer to do intensive tasks around them and I’m glad I did. Yet somehow I still felt justified using my phone. I used to rationalize that if they were settled down and playing by themselves that it would be fine. It really isn’t. It’s really a terrible example. Children are aware of when we have disappeared into our screens. And small children especially do not know the difference between us scheduling their next dentist appointment and an Instagram scroll-fest. They only know that we are fully focused on another world; unavailable in a way that we are not when we are watering the plants or unloading the dishwasher.
- If I want to do administrative tasks, use Instagram or check my emails/messages, I now do it when my kids are asleep or under the care of another adult. It makes checking off my to do list a lot slower and is pretty inconvenient. Digital multi-tasking is just no longer an option. There are reasonable exceptions like taking photos (I don’t edit, caption, or upload them), navigation, playing music in the car (we use Spotify), or taking a necessary phone call. (If my sister and I can coordinate our time zones and schedules enough to talk, then all bets are off!) The real difference is that I do not treat my phone as a life support machine anymore. The change in my kids’ behavior and responsiveness to me has been HUGE. It makes a lot of sense. How can I lecture them to be responsive to me when I am low-key ignoring them every time I respond to a text? I do sometimes use Instagram Stories with my kids around (and in), which I am honestly having a serious internal debate about right now.
- Got a paper planner and notebook for my “to-do” and “to-do later list.” One of the major effects smartphones have on our brains is the constant stream of gratification they provide for the left brain. The left brain is the side that likes multitasking. It says to you,“Hurry! Check that off. There now, doesn’t that feel better?” Nearly every time I see my phone, this compulsion kicks in. I want to push the home button, scan the screen, and check tasks off while waiting in line, giving my kids a bath, and in the tedious transition between pulling into the garage and unloading everyone from their carseats. So I no longer use apps for my to do lists. I have a paper notebook and planner. Throughout the day when I get the impulse to hop on Amazon and put that item in my cart, research a new project, or send a message to someone, I write it down on my “to do later” list. It allows me to batch my administrative tasks together and keeps me from falling into the black hole of my phone.
- Take a digital sabbath. At first this was just staying off of social media all day on Sundays. However, I started to realize that the world wouldn’t implode if I really turned my phone off for one day of the week. I’m still deciding exactly what this looks like for me, but my best digital Sabbaths so far have been those which are totally phone-free.
- Set intentional time and place parameters. As I mentioned before, my phone lives in my office and this is where I check it or use it for tasks. I do this about 1-4 times per day depending on what is happening in my life. I usually have to take my notebook in to keep myself on track. The times I check my phone are: in the morning before my kids are up, in the afternoon when they take a rest time, and after they are in bed.
Of course I am human. Clearing red badges and getting Instagram likes give me nice shots of dopamine. So sometimes I fail. My day is chaotic and my phone comes out for texts; I check things I shouldn’t on my digital Sabbath; or it takes a few minutes to wrap up what I’m doing on my phone after the kids wake up. I think the point is that we become mindful of our habits and intentions when it comes to phone use.
Of course, also, these are not rules for you or anybody. In fact, they might be ridiculous in your particular situation, I don’t really know! I do know that these are boundaries that work for me to keep myself accountable when no one is watching.
To go into the whys and wherefores of my social media use is another post. My social media use is heavily regulated in an almost embarrassing way because that is my biggest area of time waste and addiction. (Spoiler alert…I plan my posts weeks in advance and do NOT post in real time.) Is responsible social media something you guys would be interested in reading about?
If you are feeling moved to learn more about screen addiction, here are some really helpful resources that I recommend!
Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner Adair
Collin Kartchner’s Instagram Story Highlights #savethekids and #savetheparents