For the past few months, I have been wrestling with the idea of getting rid of my smartphone. One day I had the feeling that this handy, beautiful, sleek friend I took everywhere was too involved in my life. I would feel the need to check it constantly (and I’m not even on social media). I loved getting news updates, staying up on what is going on the world. I am also a lover of all things trivial, and finding new and interesting things to learn is just part of who I am. However, I had this feeling that I was on my phone more than I should be, or needed to be.
My first smartphone
I got my first smartphone right before the birth of our son- a sleek fancy iPhone 4. It couldn’t have come at a better time. He was born premature, and he spent a long time in the NICU. Having a way to distract from the frightening yet often times monotonous and sometimes boring hospital time was welcome. I could also take amazing pictures of our son, whom most people couldn’t or wouldn’t come see given his NICU stay. Later, it was a lifeline to the outside world when we were stuck in “baby prison” as my wife affectionately calls the newborn season. That initiation in parenthood where it seems impossible to get sleep, to get out of the house, or to see anyone or even a coherent thought.
As our son grew, and the trauma of his birth began subsiding, our second came along without the premature fanfare of our son, life became a bit more- well, normal I guess. We moved out of “baby prison” and into the toddler years where having my smartphone allowed me to share videos of my daughters first attempts to crawl and walk. It allowed for funny “time lapse” videos of my son going to every sit-down lawnmower in Lowes, multiple times, for 20 minutes because he loves them. However, as they got older, they started needing more and more careful interaction besides just holding, feeding, sleeping. There are conversations, there are teaching moments. The job of the parents switch from constant caring of feeding, changing, and holding to feeding, teaching, playing, loving, reading, running, coaching, singing, laughing, crying, and a whole host of other “ings.” I became keenly aware of what could potentially influence them. What is on TV around my kids? What websites could they stumble upon when they start interacting with the computer, tablet or phones? What songs are on the radio, and do I want my daughter singing that she is “all about that base?” Do I want my son to find out what sexual intercourse looks like from stumbling upon a youtube video in a few years?
Around the same time, the political climate in our country was shifting. The election of 2016 was a phenomenal thing to watch as it felt like we had moved from a country that could perhaps talk with one another to siblings who have not talked in years yelling at each other over Thanksgiving. It got me thinking about a book I had been wanting to read. I picked up a copy of “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman, and a book he wrote on childhood called “The Disappearance of Childhood.” These two books go hand in hand, as exploring their topics dovetail. One is more focused on the dumbing down of culture and the loss of ability to think because we are being constantly entertained. The other about how this effects children as a whole (spoiler alert: because they effectively become adults being exposed to so much at a young age). I realized that not only I, but my kids need to be sure that there are moments and places that are free from digital intrusion. Time to have a thought. Time to think about how you feel and why. Time to look at a blue sky and imagine what those cloud shapes look like. Time to be bored and let the mind roam. Instead, it seems if there is a spare moment we just look at our phone. What did Trump say now? What is the weather going to do tomorrow? How much does it truly cost to own an electric car versus a Ford F150? More trivia.
The Inner Life
About this time I was having a spiritual crisis of sorts. A bit disillusioned with the modern day church, and my own spiritual life, I began reading “The Spirit of Discipline” by Dallas Willard. It was life-changing for me in many ways. One thing that struck out to me was how terribly undisciplined my life really was. I didn’t see God, or hear Him as I wasn’t really spending time trying to, or seeking him, or disciplined to do the things that may allow that to happen. Instead, I would read an article on a website, or maybe a quick devotional on my phone. My point is that my phone wasn’t really helping here. It was becoming more of a distraction to me- from my kids, from my thoughts, from my God. My life is distracting enough with little kids and I am adding to the distraction with endless scrolling and insatiable appetite for high-calorie trivia with low-density nutrition.
I started doing some Google searches to see if someone else ever felt this way about their phone. Not surprisingly, they had. I found some interesting articles on the subject such as “How getting rid of my smartphone revolutionized my life,” from a UK journalist, and “How I got rid of my smartphone and got my life back.” I found one article about a CEO of a Silicone Valley startup who has only a landline and loves it. The Google employees who send their kids to Waldorf type schools with no tech at all. But by and large, there is not a ton of articles on ditching your smartphone, but there are some compelling thoughts out there.
Now, don’t feel judgement here. I am not saying smartphones are evil, and that we all should collectively ditch them. The above observations may speak more about just having more discipline in life as opposed to ditching the phone. However, it would be good to think critically about what this object has done in your life- good and bad. What role it may play in your life? Are you spying on “frenemies”? Porn on demand? Distraction from reality? Numbing some pain? A recess from a difficult relationship? A harbor from a miserable job? In light of that, think about what would be different in your life if you did not have it? Would it be a net positive or net negative? I have been thinking long (perhaps too long) and hard about this. One clue for me is the inner fight I have at the thought of letting it go. What is that hard for me? Why do I not want to, and why should I do it? Is the fact that there is a struggle there a clue?
Brain chemistry and the endless scroll
Another interesting aspect of this has to do with brain chemistry and behavior. Psychology Today had an interesting article titled “Why we are all addicted to texts, Twitter and Google.” It turns out it’s not just the dopamine hit of getting a like on Facebook, it’s the search itself which also brings pleasure. The endless scrolling, the tantalizing find of something that intrigues us. It’s the dopamine release that makes us addicted to the seeking of information in an endless loop. It’s been a fascinating mass experiment in neurobiology and behavioral science, and we are all guinea pigs in real time. For more on this see the interview on CBS with a former Google project manager called “Brain Hacking.” It’s fascinating. It’s also frightening. At least it should be. But I have the feeling we are all like awkward dinner guests again at Thanksgiving. We all know there is a problem in this family, but no one wants to talk about it. Or own it. Or do something about it.
Speaking of behavior, has it bothered you that everywhere you look, people are no longer looking up, or at each other? Kids at bus-stops all have their faces buried in the phones. The waiting room at the doctor office, families at restaurants, couples on dates- all enraptured with the incandescent glow of the screen. What is this doing to us socially? What message am I sending my kids when I don’t look at them, but instead I get frustrated they are interrupting while I text a witty reply to my neighbors. It’s a weird world we live in. (For more thoughts on this, it may be worth your time to check out the website of the group Parents Against Underage Smartphone Use. There is a lot of interesting data on smartphone and tablet use with kids that you may find illuminating).
Money, Money, Money
Finally, let’s talk about money. At the time of this writing, the new iPhone X was recently released. This baby costs about $1,000! Wow. I thought $350 was a lot to spend, even spread out over 2 years, but who can justify spending one thousand hard earned dollars on a device that my five-year-old can drop and destroy in 10 seconds. Yes, I realize there are a lot cheaper smartphones (some basic phones are more expensive than some smartphones), but if you then add the data fees, the line access fee, the cost of your favorite apps, the cost of subscription services it becomes mind-boggling how much we spend to keep our lives so digitally engaged. An article in Time recently calculated that if you upgraded your iPhone every year and opted for a high-end plan, you easily spent around $2,000 annually (that’s, $20,000 over 10 years). Multiply times two for you and your loved one, that is about $40,000 for two iPhones over 10 years. More realistically, you and I hold onto our phones longer than a year. Even with that, the typical iPhone user has spent around $1,500 per year on average with upgrades and middle of the road plans. For couples with a group discount perhaps $2500 per year. That’s still $25,000 over 10 years for a couple. That invested for 10 years could potentially give you $33,000.
So, what now?
In good conscious can I keep my expensive time sucking, brain draining, dopamine enabler on hand? It is time to look at really being counter-cultural and going back to a basic phone? What would my colleagues say when I can’t look up something quickly with a few taps and swipes of my phone? Would my friends mock me endlessly if I pulled out cheap plastic phone? (Answer: Yes, they would).
As an intermediary step, I went from my cracked iPhone 6 back to my old iPhone 4. It’s 3G- so basically going back to the stone age. It is also free because I paid for it years ago. It uploads a webpage so painfully slow that I don’t even use Safari. It has a nice enough camera that I can still get fun pictures of my kids. It’s a compromise as I look more into this. There is a growing anti-smartphone movement that makes me feel a bit less crazy. And as I research basic phones, I am getting pretty excited about The Light Phone 2. I can update you and let you know how it’s going. Who knows, maybe someday I too will return to a landline. Hopefully, when my kids turn 12. If that happens, you can bet I would have a very long, winding phone cord so my daughter has to hide in another room to talk to her boyfriend, just like in “olden times.”