by Mariel Ariwi
Our smartphones are ostensibly designed to make our lives easier and help us feel more connected to the people around us. However, this hyperconnection of our society has led to constant digital connection and an increasingly common expectation that we are able to reach anyone - anytime, anywhere.
It’s a running joke among my family and friends that I’d be the last one to call in an emergency because I’m too slow to pick up my phone. Although my friends tease me about this tendency, their jokes uncovered what was my increasing frustration with the amount of time I spent staring at my screen. My phone was once something that I could live without a few years ago, but it’s suddenly become an indispensable item when I leave the house.
Technology was meant to be a good thing - our smartphones are ostensibly designed to make our lives easier and help us feel more connected to people around us.
However, this hyperconnection of our society has led to constant digital connection and an increasingly common expectation that we are able to reach anyone - anytime, anywhere. I didn’t feel that I could fully separate myself from anyone, and as an introvert, this stopped me from being alone and recharging. Even when I wasn’t being contacted by people, I still found myself scrolling through various social media platforms, depending on them for entertainment and escape from fatigue or boredom. My dependence on my phone and the time that I spent using it had been increasing steadily for a while to the point where I felt uncomfortable without it nearby.
I considered myself a less-than-average technology user - while I was aware that I wasted a lot of time mindlessly scrolling through apps or games on my phone, I thought I limited myself pretty well. However, my iPhone’s screen time summary tells a different story. My weekly screen time averaged to 3hrs and 21 min, with the majority of it being spent on social media. My pickup rate - or the number of times that I picked up my phone to look at my screen - averaged to about 60 times per day. RescueTime, an app designed to monitor users’ screen time, estimates that people spend an average of 3 h and 15 min on their phones every day with 58 pickups per day (1). While I had convinced myself that I use my phone less than the average person, the data showed otherwise and I exceeded the average.
Articulating the things that I valued required an honest examination of how I had been spending my time and whether it was reflecting them or not.
Knowing that I spent over 24 hours on my phone in a week- on something that I professed to dislike- was a sobering truth. Looking for a solution and for a way to decrease my screen time, I came across Cal Newport, a writer who examines the intersection of technology and culture. In his book, “Digital Minimalism”, he defines digital minimalism as the discipline of using online time to support things that you value with the goal of minimizing your screen time. Digital minimalism also requires a shift in how time is spent by replacing digital activities with analog ones. In order to make the changes necessary for my screen time to only support what I valued, I had to be able to articulate those things clearly and confidently. Articulating the things that I valued required an honest examination of how I had been spending my time and whether it was reflecting them or not. I concluded that challenging conversations accompanied by a thoughtfully prepared meal are valuable to me, along with friendships I have intentionally and purposefully built into and purposefully over a number of years. I value time spent reading books that challenge my thinking and increase my capacity for empathy by exposing me to lives and experiences that are different from my own. I value being listened to by people whose opinion I trust and listening to them in return. If these were the things that added meaning and purpose to my life, I decided that I wanted to reduce my online time in order to focus more of my attention on these things.
Practically, this decrease in screen time and shift of focus has required a disciplined approach to how I use my electronic devices. Many apps are specifically designed to hold our attention, and it takes work to resist their techniques and to turn our attention instead to what we’d rather prioritize. When examining my phone usage, most of my pickups are in response to messages. While work messages can be time-sensitive for some people, many of mine are not strictly work related and so I’ve turned off ‘banner’ notifications for them and only check them hourly to limit distractions. I often scroll through Instagram when I’m bored or uncomfortable - emotions that I avoid by the endless procession of pictures. By identifying this avoidance technique, I’ve made myself face the emotion I want to avoid sooner and have shifted my use of the platform by creating a separate account solely devoted to books. It’s decreased my time on Instagram significantly by focusing the time that I spend on the app on what I truly value - reading and close friends. I’m still working on giving the majority of my attention to things that will shape my world in a meaningful way. I’ve started to turn my phone off for days at a time to enjoy the peace that I have without it. I go to the art gallery and sit in the sun, reading. I lie on the beach, listening to the sounds around me without any music playing through headphones. My mind is quiet and clear, undisturbed by the interruption of notifications or emails. I walk through the snow, enjoying the crunch of my boots on the ground. I have coffee with a friend and focus my attention fully on her, undistracted by picture taking or Instagram posts. These are moments that are aligned with the things that I value - less concerned with the digital world than the tangible one.