This addiction was recently highlighted on a three-day camping trip when Christine and I vowed to turn off all notifications and data, other than two apps–Google Maps and Health–to help us with directions and distance covered.
The camping trip came after about two weeks of life repeatedly punching me below the belt, so I was only more than happy to cut ourselves off from the outside world. As soon as we found the trailhead I started feeling the stresses of the world peel away. I might have been carrying a hefty load on my back, but the physical weight was much easier to deal with than the psychological and emotional. Those problems would be there for me when I returned to the “real world,” but sometimes it is healthy to step away for a bit.
And stepping away is becoming harder than ever before. Anyone and everyone can and will contact you through any number of apps on your phone. That little red circle, indicating a new, unchecked message is like candy to the brain, begging us to discover who sent what. Is it an email from work? Is it a snapchat from mom? Did someone respond to my political post on Facebook? Did a friend retweet something I posted to Twitter? So on, and so forth.
The phone has become both bothersome, and necessary. Ubiquitous and unavoidable. It helps us connect to others far away, but disconnect to those closest to us. We need it to function in modern society, but we also need a way to keep our own impulses–the ones that subconsciously tell us to check the phone in every single lapse in concentration–from getting the better of us.
It turns out that stepping away isn’t so easy, regardless of turning off our mobile data for pretty much everything. We both still received pop up notifications through a variety of apps (most notably Facebook). After a mere 24-hours away Facebook was practically begging for us to come back with increasingly demanding notifications “Hey! So-and-so posted new photos! Check them out!” “This person commented on your post!” “WHY AREN’T YOU LISTENING TO YOUR FACEBOOK OVERLORDS! WE DEMAND YOUR LIKES, COMMENTS, AND SHARES!” If this had gone on for another couple of days, we’re pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg would be personally holding family members hostage. And keep in mind, this is with the data turned off!
It wasn’t always easy to keep to our rule. There were several moments when my natural inclination was to check my phone for [insert update here]. But in the end, we stuck to it. The forced exile from the outside world was wonderful, if short-lived. Within moments of returning home, the phones were out, checking the litany of red dots from a long weekend’s worth of news.
I know I spend too much time on my phone (and even more time on my computer). I know I need to spend less time online, as hard as that seems. As Tristan Harris points out, these apps are designed to distract and take up our time. It is up to us to break the addiction and rely less on many of these apps.
In an attempt to break my addiction, I began experimenting with one of Harris’s suggestions: changing the settings of my phone to greyscale. The difference is immediate and shocking. Those little red dots don’t look as menacing or significant when they (along with everything else) are grey. And in comparison, the rest of the world is more interesting and vibrant.
Of course, the world is always more interesting and vibrant, but it’s easy to forget with our perpetual distraction machines so close by our sides. I’m not sure if the greyscale trick will work for me in the end, but I’m willing to give it a shot.
I think smart phones are incredible inventions. Their advent as a vital part of modern life cannot be overlooked or simply ignored, and computers will almost certainly continue playing more significant roles in our lives going forward. Still, we need to remember to carve out space for ourselves in this brave new world, even if it requires some tricks and commitment to get there.
Apps are designed to be addictive, to take as much of our time as possible. This problem is only getting worse. It is up to us to be vigilant and remember who is really in charge, even if it means completely stepping away for days at a time.