It’s time for us all to stub out our smartphones and switch off, argues Lucy Mangan.
Was it seeing the little girl in the supermarket queue tugging her father’s sleeve for attention as he texted that did it? The way that, after a few minutes of being ignored, a look of abject fear crept across her face. “Daddy,” she whispered, “can you SEE me?!”
Or was it the knowledge that I felt relief rather than inner horror when people checked their phones during lunch, because it meant I could do the same, that started me on a long-overdue digital detox?
In fact, it was the realisation that I couldn’t read any more that did it. I had, unusually, a whole afternoon to myself and settled down with a book. Except I couldn’t settle. I calculated later that I went no more than seven minutes without having to check email, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or a shopping website on my phone.
And I did
Then I came across a book by Natasha Schüll, Addiction By Design, and had the epiphany I needed. It talks about how smartphone systems and software hook us in. Features such as automatic notifications, autoplay and scrolling basically work on fruit machine principles to keep us engaged. To deliver the little dopamine hits created by novelty – no matter how trivial or ultimately disappointing the content – and get us craving more.
I’ve never smoked, because the idea of being dependent on something makes me furious. But there I was, like everyone else, pursuing the pixelated version of nicotine at the expense of my health, albeit mental rather than physical.
First I stopped taking my phone to bed (I got a lovely, chunky old-school clock from Wilko for my morning alarm). I got an hour’s more sleep from the off, but it took me a while to get over the panicky, severed umbilical feeling of not having my phone to hand each morning.
But, it turns out, only a PR for incontinence products emails me during night hours. Then I worked my way down from scrolling for hours a night to half an hour (by, ironically, using the phone’s timer). I allowed myself 15 minutes for replying to tweets, another 15 for catching up on the social media feeds of the people whose activities (and cats, shoes and dinners) I genuinely care about, a last email check at 8pm – which is the very latest you should conscionably be in the office – and then, offline.
I literally had to sit on my hands sometimes, or get my husband to put my phone on an out-of-reach shelf, but gradually it worked. My friends didn’t abandon me and when we met, conversation flowed more freely – more things to tell each other and fewer interruptions to it. Without dings and buzzes and beeps, I learned that a life without mini dopamine hits is also a life without constant fretting. My reading span lengthened. Three weeks on and I feel like I’m back in the world and the master of something I had not even known was controlling me. Stub out your smartphones, kids. You know it makes sense.