Why I stepped away from my smartphone - and why I am unlikely to go back to it

Posted on Sun 01 May 2022 in personal

I sit on the metro. I see the lady on my side unlock her smartphone, scroll up to reveal the list of installed apps, open one at random, go back to the home screen, and finally lock the device again. All happens within 5 seconds. Still holding the phone in her hands, she goes back to looking out of the window, comfortably seated. I look around - nobody raised an eyebrow. But also, everybody has their smartphone in their hands. One hand is enough to count the number of people who are doing something not involving their smartphone on the whole train, and it is rush hour on the Stockholm metro. Then I wonder: how would people feel if all smartphones were to suddenly turn into cigarettes? What would people think? I assume they would reckon the train was filled with addicts. Or at least, my feeling is that the train is filled with addicts who have crossed the line and do not even realize anymore that they are addicts. Filled with self-satisfaction and judgement towards others, I look down: my smartphone is in my hands. I realize I too am an addict, I too am a smoker. I decide I need to do something about it.

So one morning I dropped into an electronics store and bought a €45 dumbphone (which a friend has rightly named wise-phone). Getting it second-hand was more expensive, and I wanted it that very morning. The clerk asked me if I would pay by card or cash. I was tempted to ask if he would be patient enough for me to go out and pick my cheque book from the saddlebag of my horse. Back home, I sent a flood of WhatsApp/Telegram messages saying I would not have a smartphone for at least 30 days, but that people should feel free to SMS or ring me at any time. Then I took out the SIM card and put it in what felt like a childhood experience: a Nokia phone that had more games installed than regular apps. I left my apartment without my smartphone in my pockets for the first time in years. I went out without Internet access for the first time in a decade.

The day before, when fantasizing about ditching my smartphone, I felt anxiety and worry. Now, out with a feather in my pockets, I felt light and free.

It did not start as a problem

Although I was not among the earliest adopters, I did buy a smartphone when many people still did not have one. I was probably the first in my family, and such I remained for at least a couple of years. But still, having had a smartphone for more than a decade raised for me the question of why I came to reject it so much later in time, and why I did not have negative feelings towards it for such a long time.

My first device was a Galaxy Nexus in ~ 2012. At the time, there was not much to be done with smartphones that was not possible with computers: WhatsApp was barely 3 years old; all other messaging apps did not exist; almost no website was optimized for small screens. I had a high-end self-assembled desktop computer, so for sure my new phone did not out-compete my workstation. But hey, what computer can you actually bring in your pockets? I was a teenager and it looked cool to feel and look busy replying to emails from my phone, at any time. To look up information I was wondering about. To have my documents synced there. To find the phone number of a shop from my phone and call straightaway. Little of this was time sensitive, or better suited to be done on my phone rather than on the computer. But at the same time, there was not much harm happening either. Sure, silicon and copper had been mined at the expense of the health of people in remote countries, but my health was fine.

The years went by and nothing major happened. In no way did I feel drawn to my phone in the way that brings people to unlock and lock it randomly, for reasons that we will soon explore. At some point I switched phone just because my Nexus was in pieces (I drop phones, a lot), and started buying second-hand. At no point in time did ditching my smartphone ever occurred to me, mostly because, with time, I had started using it for more and more purposes: I had my documents and music automatically synced on it, I could now text people through the internet, I could record myself playing the piano and send it to my teacher, etc. It was just so convenient on so many regards. However, at that time I was still spending hours reading, writing, crafting videos, developing software - the smartphone was a convenience and a luxury, but I never felt like a problem. I was engaged in so many activities that I just did not have the time to use it enough to make it become a problem.

Then in 2018 I started traveling. I spent a summer in Ireland, a semester in Madrid, and then relocated permanently to Stockholm. My smartphone quickly transitioned from a luxury to a necessity: buying and showing tickets; maps and directions, as well as finding restaurants and cafes; connecting with the people I met; finding and participating in events and activities with quasi-strangers; keeping in touch with my partner. To build myself a life in my home city took 25 years, and I feel like the smartphone catalyzed the creation of my new life abroad. At the same time, I had my phone in my hands far more than before, and far more pockets of spare time to fill. My phone quickly filled up with podcasts to listen to and articles to read. And while at the beginning I was cherry-picking the content I wanted to consume on my phone, it soon became littered with so much content that I could be entertained by it anytime, for any length of time. Why stare at the void while waiting for the metro, if I can read an interesting article about the history of wheat? Why listen to the chattering inside a train, if I can listen to a podcast talk about software development? Why waste time if I could use it for something? At that point, I could still argue that, even if I were addicted (which I would have probably denied anyway), it was still a healthy addiction, if something like that could ever exist. Or at least, it was hard to argue that my smartphone was harming my cognitive skills. In retrospect, I regard all these activities as just a tad better than regular entertainment, in the sense that they are passive and only seldom contribute to a richer life experience. The detonating variable still had to be added though.

It all started rumbling down pretty fast when I found myself unhappy in my workplace. I felt like I did not have enough to do, and what I had was vague and hardly actionable. I went from a rich schedule of engaging activities in home country, to a sparse routine of appalling tasks. I tried to flee these assignments, and who was there to welcome me with open arms? But of course. When I wanted to shy away from a complicated task, I could checkout WhatsApp/Telegram/Facebook/email in the hope that somebody had texted. And since I was at it, I could also read an article. And I would re-emerge 15 minutes later with aching wrists and no accomplishments whatsoever on my bigger task, which would in turn obviously motivate me even less to tackle it. Repeat.

There are countless studies suggesting that it is not really phone usage that degrades our cognitive performance, but rather the frequent context switch between tasks. By jumping away from difficult tasks and tackling micro tasks on my phone, or even on my computer at some point, I created myself an environment in which it became hard to get anything done, because I had de-trained myself from focusing. I definitely started noticing how I could not seem able to focus for long stretches of time anymore, not as I used to be able to do when I was in university. I could blame age, but if this is how life at 27 is already supposed to be, boy have we been cheated upon. After so many years of higher education, this felt like a defeat.

The same loss of cognitive skills could have happened by watching TV series every time I wanted to shy away from my work. And truth be told, I remember it happening in other circumstances. I remember breaking up with my ex and spending days in bed with a laptop and never ending seasons of Chuck. And I remember how at some point I wondered "ugh, how am I gonna break out of this?". The salvation in that case came in the form of an already-scheduled ski trip. It is very, very hard to bring your TV series addiction with you while skiing - it is feasible, but that addiction has constraints. A week later I went back home feeling okay; I avoided TV series in bed for a while and it was no big deal.

To be even fairer, I did not need a smartphone to end up there. As I came to discover, frequent context switches are a product of the Internet, not of smartphones, so a regular computer is enough to trigger it. The reason why smartphones are so dangerous though is that we can never leave them. The moment they become our all-round go-to tool, it becomes impossible to step away from them. You can not take a ski trip without your phone: my student card is on my phone; the GPS navigation to get there is on my phone; calls to  my partner go through my phone. The moment we turn to our smartphone for communication and maps, reading and music, workout plans and banking... for everything, it becomes impossible to ditch it. And then it suddenly develops the potential of becoming a gigantic problem, in the form of a constant distraction.

How did it happen? You sure have some willpower, don't you?

Nobody ever plans to develop an addiction. Rather, it happens unconsciously, given the right circumstances. If we are going through a rough time in our lives, and there is something that seems capable of making that time easier, we will take it. People with addictions have often very normal life paths, except something that pushed them towards the addiction in a very innocent way, at the beginning. Boredom at school. A break up. Job loss. An incident. Whatever it is, sources of consolation are very welcome, in the form of booze, smoke, painkillers. Nobody plans to become addicted to them, they just want a relief from a tough time. You need a a lot of discipline or a high level of consciousness to realize when the relief is turning into another problem.

The great danger with smartphones is that nobody is immune, and that it is dramatically easy to slip into it. Nobody is immune from any addiction, but you have to take an active step to slip into a more traditional addiction. You have to physically go in a shop and buy cigarettes, and then start smoking, which will by the way feel awful at the beginning. You have to go to the store and buy cans of beer. You have to get a chronic pain and have a doctor prescribe painkillers. After all this, you can develop the addiction, but an active step is needed to begin with.

The difference with smartphones is that, since the largest share of the first-world population has one in their pockets, they have an addiction lurking at them all the time. Phone addiction is triggered by much smaller reasons than the major historical addictions. You just need to be looking for a distraction from a boring moment of your day. And who doesn't have a boring moment in their days? That makes it quite easy to start. And once you start turning to your phone as a distraction from life, the road is paved. When our brain starts realizing that the phone is an easy source of dopamine and reward, it will push to have it as often as possible. Why engage in a difficult task when you can get easy dopamine? Give way to such a behavior a few times, and it will become increasingly difficult to tackle hard tasks, because you brain has become used to getting rewards to much simpler tasks, and will crave for it.

I can really see this having happened to me, looking back. After moving, I was alone and a bit aimless, especially after the enthusiasm of the first few months faded away. I turned to my phone more and more often, even for what I felt were meaningful tasks: reaching out to my partner and connections in my home country; taking pictures; listening to music; reading articles. This was still fine, and is probably the innocent situation for many people. However, when my work became not engaging, the road was paved for me to get an easy distraction: pick up my phone. The more I did it, the more bound to my phone I became. But of course I never meant to become addicted - it just happened. Moreover, it is hugely draining to constantly exercising willpower, in order to restrain phone usage. Resisting temptation is cognitively very demanding: it is much easier to do away with the temptation altogether.

But is it really a problem if I am addicted to my phone?

Everybody will draw their own conclusion, but is there any positive definition of addiction? I don't think so. The problem is also that most often it takes a lot of time and energy for addicts to realize and admit they have an addiction problem. I have met many people who were hugely more addicted than me, and they would still stare at me blankly the times I picked up a call on my wise-phone: they just could not understand why (and how) I would do without a smartphone. Brief conversations revealed that they did realize, on some level, that they were addicted, but they dismissed the matter lightly. The problem is also that awareness that this is a societal mass addiction and the cause for loss of focus is only slowly arising now: in the same way as it took decades for smoking to be regarded basically as a self-harm activity, it will take decades for the same to happen with smartphones. After all, it is hard to counteract an addiction that does not cause cancer and that is so widely widespread anyway.

For me, it also came down to the kind of person I wanted to be, and the behaviors I wanted to have. I have witnessed (and I still do on a daily basis) worrying behaviors, that I did not want to start engaging in. People randomly unlocking and locking their phone. Fathers out for dinner with two children spending the night with their phone, instead of with the kids. People picking up their phone as soon as the spontaneous conversation among a group friends halted for a few seconds. People sitting among people, their phone in their hands, asking "what are you talking about?", and not even hearing the reply. People showing others a silly Instagram video, then getting dragged from story to story. I have experienced each of these as a spectator, and it made me feel so much disconnected from the people and even more alone. How much far away from a Wall-E scenario are we really?


The perks

  • I did not recover my cognitive skills the day I stopped using my smartphone. However, not having it anymore is not making it worse and allows me to pick up again.
  • I started reading proper books again. Throughout a month, I read much more of the monthly average of the past year. I started writing a bit more again as well, and I feel I started thinking again.
  • During my commuting time, I either plan for the day/read a book, or I overhear conversations. This gives me such a more faithful view on the world than any social media. If I am too tired to do any of these, I close my eyes and half-nap, or I focus on my breath. I do not need to be entertained throughout the journey, even though, to this date, the idea is still alluring. It takes of course no effort to put up a podcast and have listen to it, or scroll through a wall of random messages.
  • My communications have become easier. If I should plan for something with somebody, I ring them. It takes 2 minutes instead of 20 frustrating back-and-forths, and I get to hear the other person's voice. I hear laughs instead of seeing emojis.
  • No more ache on wrists and shoulders.

The drawbacks (if such they are)

  • Texting is ridiculously slow. I write in 3 languages every day, and I can only get T9 predictions in 2 languages. This means that it is fairly okay to write in 2 languages, even if it is quite clumsy to switch between the two, but for the third language I have to bang the keys multiple times and write each letter of every word. So forget SMS to talk about your day, plan activities and whatnot. Texts have become pure short communication means to say "I am 5 late", or "Meet at X at Y". For anything more than that, I just ring people. Is it a disadvantage? I am not sure, I do not think so. It is so much easier and faster, and I enjoy listening to the voice of the person on the other end. Besides, my wrists and shoulders hardly ache at all anymore.
  • Maps and navigation are extremely convenient. I cannot anymore afford the luxury of scheduling my trip with no margin for being late, nor can I go somewhere unknown with no prior planning. I have to look up the map beforehand, take notes if needed, and always make sure I have all the relevant information with me when I will be out. If I venture in an area of the city that I completely unfamiliar with, I plan to get there half an hour earlier. I have to allow myself to get lost. It has happened multiple times that I had to ask passersby for directions (and they would pull out their phone, enter the street name I asked for, and hit Navigation). It has worked very well so far: I have more often than not had a laugh with these strangers, and they were happy to have been helpful.
  • It is hard to have shallow relationships. I can not be added to group chats, and the people who would randomly text me once every other month to greet and ask how I was doing hardly text anymore. But then, is it a loss? I want to have meaningful deep relationships with people, and I am not sure I am losing that much by not having shallow transient relationships. I fixed this by checking WhatsApp/Telegram Web every other day or so.

Are there even any dumphones for sale these days?

To my surprise, I discovered that there is a thriving market of wisephones. This is mainly divided in three sectors:

  1. Second-hand old phones. The problem with these old phones is that a) your SIM is most likely too small to be used with these, so you would need some adapter; b) some carriers have (or plan to) dismiss support for old 2G communication protocols, and eventually 3G as well. So if you simply pick up a phone from 15 years ago, it is likely that it just will not work.
  2. Modern cheap phones tailored to pensioners (my Nokia belongs to this segment). These are not necessarily dumbphones, but rather phones designed to be simple to use. The high-end ones reach up to €150, and have WhatsApp and Facebook built-in. They are often 4G dual sim Bluetooth phones, so that you can have a modern phone experience. Some of these can be found second-hand from pensioners who "had been given it by their children, but felt like they were too complicated to use" (hard to blame them). Some of them have beautifully gigantic keys.
  3. Hipster modern dumbphones. These, like The Light Phone, go as up as $299 and are smartphones of some sort dumbed down so that they cannot become too much of a distraction (for ex, you have Internet access, but only to do hotspot to another device; no built-in browser).

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