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Screen time: Painless ways to curb your smartphone addiction

Lent is the perfect time to stop getting distracted by your mobile

By Trisha Elliott

I wouldn’t class myself a technophobe, but I will admit that I am sometimes slow to embrace new technology. I resisted email, was a latecomer to Facebook and refused to use a cellphone for work long after it was fashionable. There are moments when I still pine for the olden days of typewriters, snail mail and the clicking of the rotary dial. While phones with cords kept us tethered to the wall, phones without cords have become a worse kind of leash: a Harris Interactive study five years ago showed that nearly three-quarters of us are rarely more than a metre or so away from them.

That’s now me. I’ve more than made up for my slow embrace of smartphones. I carry mine around the house the same way I cradled the oh-so-fragile egg baby the teacher entrusted us with in high school parenting class.

Heaven help me if we get separated or it falls and cracks. Or worse, drowns. (Carrying a phone and a water bottle in the same purse wasn’t my brightest move.) If my phone and I are separated for any reason — a meeting, say — I obsessively check Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, texts, email and voice mail before I carry on with my next task. I have yet to walk into a parked car while surfing, but I’ve come pretty close. And there have been plenty of mornings when I’ve rolled over to greet my phone before my partner.

Traditionally, Lent has been about giving up bad habits; maybe it’s time to let go of mine. It’s been about 25 years since IBM released the first primitive smartphone and 11 years since Apple launched the iPhone. For better or worse, they’re here to stay. Three out of four Canadians own one. How do we keep them from owning us?

The logical first step in changing any behaviour we want to give up is to take stock. Naturally, there are apps for that. With slight variations, tracking apps like MyAddictometer, Moment and QualityTime deliver stats on how you use your phone. Here are mine: while I’m awake, I check my phone an average of four times an hour, with Facebook and email topping my usage chart. In total, I spend a whopping three hours a day on my phone. More than I spend prepping meals. More than I spend with the kids.

At least I trend young. According to ComScore, a media measurement company, the three hours a day I spend on my phone places me among Canadians two decades my junior. In other ways, I’m perfectly average. More Canadians than ever are using mobile devices for banking. (Check!) Social media usage accounts for just over a quarter of all mobile minutes. (That’s me!) And between 2016 and 2017, there was a 43 percent spike in the use of health apps. (Bingo!)

Either I’m not so bad or we are all going to hell.

I would say that my phone dependency comes with a host of negative side-effects: shorter attention span, decreased tolerance for slow communicators, decline in overall productivity and quality of communication. I used to clean up in spelling bees. Not anymore. Now and then I catch myself writing important memos with grammar that’s practically pre-literate.

A new term is working its way into popular jargon — “nomophobic” (no mobile phobia). To find out where I am on the spectrum, I took a quiz developed by researchers from Iowa State University. It asked me to rate my level of agreement with 20 statements such as, “If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it,” and “I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.” Turns out I’m just mildly nomophobic. I’m not as far gone as people who text while driving. Bathroom breaks aside, my phone doesn’t invade my private moments — unlike the nine percent of smartphone owners in a 2013 survey who reported using their phones during sex.

Clearly, there are issues. But they aren’t the same for everyone. An app called Space helps you build “a better relationship with your phone” by identifying the phone user camp you fall into. The app’s creators outline four: rabbit hole wanderers (who open the phone for a reason, get distracted, fall down a rabbit hole and lose 20 minutes they’ll never get back again); boredom battlers (who reach for their phones during downtime); social sticky mitts (who want to experience the “rush” that comes with social interaction); and busy bees (who constantly check their phones for the latest email or scrap of information).

I tell myself I lean toward the busy bee: my relentless phone checking is work-related, and I have complete control over it. But in reality, the tail is wagging the dog much of the time.

Maybe the troubles stem from how we view our phones and their relationship to us. Obviously, the phone isn’t just a phone. It’s a camera, calendar, music player, diary, television, calculator and more. Some researchers believe that the greater the number of applications on your phone, the greater the potential that you’ll become addicted to it. Others suggest that the boundaries between us and our phones are evaporating: the reason we take them everywhere isn’t because they are useful but because we see them as an extension of ourselves. Take, for example, your contact list. University of Connecticut philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch, author of The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, suggests that it might be more than a mere memory aid. Instead, Lynch writes in an article, “my actual remembering is partly constituted by the phone itself. . . . My knowing is definitely outsourced to my phone.”

No wonder we’re so afraid of losing them. Or, for the 12 percent who admit to taking their phones into the shower, lathering up without them.

Reversing smartphone dependency demands a good detox. Staging my own intervention, I went searching for ideas to incorporate into my Lenten spiritual practice. They might work for you, too, if you’re thinking of cutting back on your phone habit:

1. Install apps that offer pre-programmable screen dimming, notification blockers and session interruptions.

2. Turn off non-essential audio notifications.

3. Designate cellphone-free zones in your home (the dinner table and bedroom are two obvious locations) and declare certain times of the day (such as the first hour after you wake up) as cellphone-free.

4. Use the timer on your phone to signal to you when it’s okay to check it — say, every 20 minutes — and gradually lengthen the intervals between signals.

5. Put your phone in another room if you can’t resist the urge to check it when interacting with others.

6. Or you could simply switch the thing off and leave it that way.

It’s been a week since I’ve begun phone-fasting. Know what? My quality of life has improved. I’m more focused and more intentional about choosing what deserves my attention. Without the distractions of YouTube and those dumb clickbait quizzes, I’ve found time to do unusual things — like read a book with actual pages.

But there are downsides. I preferred texting my teenage son in his basement domain than actually venturing down there. And I’ve been reminded that making conversation requires more effort than burying my head in my phone; honestly, in some company, the latter is more pleasant. The worst change, though, is that phone-fasting forces me to give up the notion that the world might end if I don’t respond to a message the second I receive it. Which is really too bad. I do miss thinking I’m that important.

This story first appeared in The Observer's February 2018 edition with the title "Disconnecting."

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.

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