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How to Break Up with Your Phone

Let’s get something clear from the start: the point of this book is not to get you to throw your phone under a bus...

Just as breaking up with a person doesn’t mean that you’re swearing off all human relationships, “breaking up” with your phone doesn’t mean you’re trading in your touch screen for a rotary dial.

After all, there are lots of reasons for us to love our smartphones. They’re cameras. They’re DJs. They help us keep in touch with family and friends, and they know the answers to every piece of trivia we could ever think to ask. They tell us about the traffic and the weather, they store our calendars and our contact lists. Smartphones are amazing tools. But something about smartphones also makes us act like tools. Most of us find it hard to get through a meal or a film or even a stoplight without pulling out our phones. On the rare occasions when we accidentally leave them at home or on our desk, we reach for them anyway and feel anxious, again and again, each time we realise they’re not there. If you’re like most people, your phone is within arm’s reach right this very second, and the mere mention of it is making you want to check something. Like the news. Or your texts. Or your email. Or the weather. Or, really, anything at all. Go ahead and do it. And then come back to this page and notice how you feel. Are you calm? Focused? Present? Satisfied? Or are you feeling a bit scattered and uneasy, vaguely stressed without really knowing why?

Today, just over a decade since smartphones entered our lives, we’re beginning to suspect that their impact on our lives might not be entirely good. We feel busy but ineffective. Connected but lonely. The same technology that gives us freedom can also act as a leash – and the more tethered we become, the more it raises the question of who’s actually in control. The result is a paralysing tension: we love our phones, but we often hate the way they make us feel. And no one seems to know what to do about it. The problem isn’t smartphones themselves. The problem is our relationships with them. Smartphones have infiltrated our lives so quickly and so thoroughly that we have never stopped to think about what we actually want our relationships with them to look like – or what effects these relationships might be having on our lives.

We never stopped to think about which features of our phones make us feel good, and which make us feel bad. We’ve never stopped to think about why smartphones are so hard to put down, or who might be benefiting when we pick them up. We’ve never stopped to think about what spending so many hours engaged with our devices might be doing to our brains, or whether a device billed as a way to connect us to other people might actually be driving us apart. “Breaking up” with your phone means giving yourself a chance to stop and think. It means noticing which parts of your relationship are working and which parts are not. It means setting boundaries between your online and offline lives. It means becoming conscious of how and why you use your phone – and recognising that your phone is manipulating how and why you use it. It means undoing the effects that your phone has had on our brain. It means prioritising real-life relationships over those that take place on screens. Breaking up with your phone means giving yourself space, freedom, and tools necessary to create a new, long-term relationship with it, one that keeps what you love about your phone and gets rid of what you don’t. A relationship, in other words, that makes you feel healthy and happy – and over which you have control.

If you’re curious about the status of your relationship with your smartphone, try taking the Smartphone Compulsion Test, developed by Dr David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Just circle the questions that apply to you.

  1. Do you find yourself spending more time on your mobile or smartphone than you realise?
  2. Do you find yourself mindlessly passing time on a regular basis by staring at your mobile or smartphone?
  3. Do you seem to lose track of time when on your mobile or smartphone?
  4. Do you find yourself spending more time texting, tweeting, or emailing as opposed to talking to people in person?
  5. Has the amount of time you spend on your mobile or smartphone been increasing?
  6. Do you wish you could be a little less involved with your phone?
  7. Do you sleep with your mobile or smartphone (turned on) under your pillow or next to you’re your bed regularly?
  8. Do you find yourself viewing and answering texts, tweets, and emails at all hours of the day and night – even if it means interrupting other things you are doing?
  9. Do you text, email, tweet, Snapchat, Facebook message, or surf while driving or doing other similar activities that require your focused attention and concentration?
  10. Do you feel your use of your mobile or smartphone decreases your productivity at times?
  11. Do you feel reluctant to be without your mobile or smartphone, even for a short time?
  12. Do you feel ill at ease or uncomfortable when you accidentally leave your smartphone in the car or at home, have no service, or have a broken phone?
  13. When you eat meals, is your mobile or smartphone always part of the table place setting?
  14. When your mobile or smartphone rings, beeps, or buzzes, do you feel an intense urge to check for texts, tweets, email updates, and so on?
  15. Do you find yourself mindlessly checking your mobile or smartphone many times a day, even when you know it is unlikely there is anything new or important to see?

Here’s how Greenfield interprets people’s scores:

1-2: Your behaviour is normal but that doesn’t mean you should live on your smartphone. 3-4: Your behaviour is leaning towards problematic or compulsive use. 5 or above: It is likely that you may have a problematic or compulsive smartphone use pattern. 8 or higher: If your score is higher than 8, you might consider seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist who specialises in behavioural addictions for a consultation.

If you are like most people, you have just discovered that you qualify for a psychiatric evaluation. I mean, come on. The only way to score below 5 on this test is to not have a smartphone. But the fact that these behaviours and feelings are so universal does not mean that they are harmless or that this test is too dramatic. Instead, it’s an indication that the problem may be bigger than we think. To prove it, try this game: the next time you’re in public, take a second to notice how many of the people around you – including children – are staring at their phones. Then imagine that instead of looking at their smartphones, those same people were shooting up. Would the fact that half the people around you were doing so make it seem normal or okay?

Consider the following:

  • UK adults check their phones 33 times per day. Young people aged between 16 and 19 average 90 checks per day.
  • On average, Britons spend more than 2 hours a day on their phones. That amounts to 14 hours a week, 60 hours a month, or 30 full days a year.
  • More than a third of UK adults look at their phones within five minutes of waking and over half do so within fifteen minutes.
  • 38 percent of adults check their phones after they have gone to sleep. Among teenagers, this figure rises to 66 percent, and over a quarter respond to their messages during the night.
  • We’re using our phones so much that we’re giving ourselves repetitive strain injuries such as “texting thumb”, “text neck”, and “mobile phone elbow”.
  • 91 percent of the 41 million 16-75-year-olds who have a smartphone in the UK use their device every day.
  • 62 percent of UK consumers agree with this statement: “I can’t imagine my life without my mobile phone”.
  • Studies suggest that up to 62 percent of women and 48 percent of men have checked their phone during sex.

Yes, sex.

Strangely, while many people agree that taking a break from their phone (often called “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox”) would be good for their mental health, very few people actually do it. As a health and science journalist, I find this discrepancy fascinating. But my interest is personal, too. I have spent more than 15 years writing books and articles about subjects ranging from diabetes, nutritional chemistry, and endocrinology to mindfulness, positive psychology, and meditation. Other than a brief stint as a Latin and maths teacher, I’ve always been my own boss – and as anyone who’s started their own business knows, surviving as a freelancer requires a lot of self-discipline and focus. (I spent three years writing a history of vitamins, for goodness’ sake.) You’d think that by now my time-management skills must be pretty well honed. But over the past few years, they’ve actually become worse. My attention span is shorter. My memory seems weaker. My focus flickers. Sure, some of this might be due to natural age-related changes in my brain. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to suspect that there was an external factor at play – and that factor was my phone.