A few years ago, a photo of a mom in an airport went viral. She sat in a chair looking at her phone; her baby was at her feet, lying on a mat. The online judgment was screechy and instantaneous, largely boiling down to that woman shouldn’t be a mother and technology has ruined us all.
In an interview later, which surely too few people saw, the harassed woman explained that she was actually trying to communicate with family members during a long day of cancelled flights. She wasn’t, as her critics believed, ignoring her baby for the superficial entertainment of modern technology.
This example came to mind recently as I began using Apple’s “Screen Time” feature to track how much I use my phone. I was a touch embarrassed by my average daily statistics—do I really pick up my phone that much? I spent how much time on it this week? Immediately I pronounced myself guilty of neglecting my child, my responsibilities, and my role in the world around me.
But wait—some of that time was spent browsing music to play for my toddler. Some of it was looking for a new podcast. Some of it was reading on the Kindle app, some of it was checking the weather before I got dressed for the day, and some of it was using Waze to avoid traffic.
Just as the mother in the airport wasn’t morally deficient for looking at her phone, neither are we entirely at fault for the amount of time we spend on our devices. Our phones are both useful and addictive, so as long as we combat our screen time problem only with willpower, we won’t have much success.
Hooked by design
We’re quick to demonize screen time, and not without cause. About a quarter of Americans report being online “almost constantly.” We’ve reached near-saturation levels of mobile phone ownership. For every virtuous use of my own phone, I spend at least as much time on social media and other digital black holes. How did we get here?
Part of our problem comes from the tech companies themselves, who, as former Google employee Tristan Harris has explained on the TED stage, design their apps and devices to be addictive. The color red for notifications? Autoplaying videos? Snapstreaks? They’re intentional, and they’re engineered to keep our attention for as long as possible. Apple has responded to the growing backlash by adding that Screen Time feature I’ve begun using, which offers app time limits and “downtime” schedules in addition to time reporting tools. Facebook and Instagram have followed suit.
But although tracking our time may help—at least in spurring a desire for change—it doesn’t liberate us from the other part of the problem: the fact that we need our phones for every minor task, beginning with waking up in the morning. It’s hard to break a bad habit when you’re faced with temptation over and over and over again.
The pull of habits
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains that habits generally follow the same “loop”: the cue, or what triggers our habitual action; the routine, or the action itself; and the reward, or the benefit that keeps us coming back for more. In our case, the reward is anything from the dopamine hit of a new “like” on Instagram to that interesting article your cousin posted. The routine is the aimless thumb-scrolling, looking for something to pique our interest without quite knowing what we want to find (but that often turns into looking at a long-lost acquaintance’s maternity photos). And the cue? Anything that makes us pick up our phones, which can be as simple as wondering whether it will rain tomorrow. What begins as an impulse to check the weather ends in a ten-minute-long scroll through Twitter.
So what do we do? Is it possible to create any device-free spaces in our day?
I’d like to hope so, but it requires a little bit more than willing ourselves to keep our phones facedown. If we really want to carve out any time away from our tempting distractions, away from rude notifications, away from constant connection, we need to free ourselves from some of those minor use cases—which might mean returning to the single-purpose, analog items that smartphones made obsolete.
Confronting our “cues”
Think about your day. What would it take to allow you to leave your phone in another room for a couple hours?
Maybe you could use an alarm clock so you can leave your phone somewhere else at night. (I can speak for this one; I’m now in the habit of reading every night before bed instead of wasting time on Instagram.)
Maybe you need a new book or a Kindle so you don’t have to read on your phone.
Maybe you could use a physical binder of your favorite recipes so that dinner prep can become a restorative, phone-free ritual. Maybe you also need an egg timer because your oven is one hundred years old and doesn’t even tell you when it’s preheated, let alone when twenty-five minutes have passed. (Just me?)
Maybe you’d benefit from an old-school MP3 player so you don’t see work emails popping up when you go for a run; maybe you should dig up a little notebook for your to-do list; maybe you just need a watch so you don’t have to check your phone for the time.
We have a lot to gain from limiting our time on our phones—better sleep, for example, increased ability to focus, and lower levels of anxiety. To that list I’d also add the gratifying feeling of knowing that we’re in control of our devices, rather than the other way around.
So go buy that alarm clock. Guilt isn’t going to get us anywhere, but a few well-chosen purchases just might.