A few weeks ago I found myself hunting for my iPhone in a frenzy — pulling cushions off the sofa, rummaging violently through piles of paperwork, my increasingly shallow breathing climbing higher and higher up my chest, until I was on the verge of panic.
And it finally hit me, the absurdity of being borderline hysterical about misplacing a tiny mod-con. “Help, I can’t find the object that makes me feel physically anxious, professionally inadequate, emotionally disengaged, distracted and unproductive,” my inner voice shrieked. “What am I going to do without it?”
Recently, Simon Cowell answered that question: live a much happier, healthier life. “I literally have not been on my phone for 10 months,” Cowell said. “The difference it made was that I became more aware of the people around me and way more focused. It has been so good for my mental health. It’s a very strange experience but it really is good for you and it has absolutely made me happier.”
It is a bold move. Abandoning your phone entirely for months is perhaps an option only open to millionaire music moguls with a team of PAs to keep on top of their commitments, but his revelations come at a time when medical professionals are also voicing mounting concerns about the effects of smartphone overuse and digital addiction.
According to data from Moment, a time-tracking app with nearly five million users, the average person spends four hours a day interacting with their phone. Last year, a Deloitte survey of 4,000 adults revealed that 38 per cent felt they were using their phones too much; and, of course, this alarming figure applies only to those aware of the potentially detrimental effects.
How many of us don’t yet accept that our phone usage is excessive and damaging?
We all know that habits such as checking our social media last thing at night, and “two-screening” (flicking through our phones as we watch Netflix) aren’t healthy but, still, 79 per cent of us check apps in the final hour before bedtime, and 55 per cent within 15 minutes of waking up.
I know first-hand just how insidious and hard-to-kick these digital habits can be. I’d always been proud of my relatively (for a millennial) moderate digital habits; I’d keep my phone on flight mode at night and for extended stretches during the weekend or on trips. I had switched off all notifications and regularly put it on silent mode.
I felt like I could reap the benefits of a smartphone, without becoming a slave to my screen. I’d only flick open social media apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram once a day, with the mantra “keyhole surgery, in and out” in my mind, doing the minimum required to maintain my professional profile and stay clued up. I smugly thought I had my digital habits down; that I was mistress of my devices; that I could show technology who was boss.
I was wrong. In February, I published my first book — a travel memoir — which involved a six-week flurry of book promotion across all my social media channels. I’d been dreading it, and didn’t enjoy being glued to my phone, but I felt it was necessary.
As anyone launching a business or promoting work will know, social media has given us all a free, accessible platform on which to blow our own trumpet. But it wasn’t entirely free; I soon realised I was paying with my mental health. The effects on my levels of anxiety were almost immediate, and shocking in their extremity.
Within a week, I realised I had trained myself to listen out for the whooshing sound of a WhatsApp message, the ping of an iMessage, the tinkle of a notification on Facebook messenger, the donk of an email. I could feel the rush of dopamine when I heard one of these sounds; and I felt like I should constantly be “checking” something.
Scrolling, zombie-like, through Instagram, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger was the last thing I did at night, and the first thing I did in the morning, within seconds of turning out the light or waking up.
Soon, I realised I couldn’t focus on the faces of friends in front of me as we had coffee. If I hadn’t checked my phone for more than a few minutes, I panicked. What if I missed something? I felt my productivity and creativity slump, and my sensations numb; music didn’t sound as sharp and affecting, food didn’t taste as good; the blue of the sky seemed less vibrant.
These were symptoms I recognised as eerily close to depression, but I knew that it was my newly minted digital addiction that was to blame. In just a few short weeks, I had trained myself to be beholden to my devices — a distracted, twitchy, anxiety-ridden drone.
In her excellent book, How to Break up With Your Phone, the journalist Catherine Price spent 18 months researching habits, addiction, behaviour change, mindfulness and neuroplasticity, and developed a comprehensive strategy for how to create a sustainable, healthy relationship with her digital devices.
One of Price’s main points is this: phone addiction is not our fault. This technology was specifically developed to be addictive; to manufacture Fomo (fear of missing out); to capitalise on our insecurity; to tap into our primal fears of status anxiety; to connect with the reward centre in our brains and flood our systems with hormones at the ping of a self-validating “like”.
And, for the first time, tech companies are acknowledging this. At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, this week, Apple is widely expected to introduce a tool to help users better manage time spent on devices and improve “digital well-being”. Earlier last month, Google unveiled a set of tools and apps geared towards creating “balance” in our digital lives, observing that 70 per cent of its users were concerned.
Few of us have the luxury of passing our phone over to an assistant, but there are steps that we can all take to redraw our boundaries and develop a healthier relationship with our devices. Last week, I left mine under my bed while I went off on a three-day kayaking and wild-camping trip to Sweden. Yes, it took a bit more organising — including printing boarding passes rather than using the Ryanair app, relying on a map and compass for navigation over Google Maps, and asking for advice on restaurants rather than asking TripAdvisor or Yelp.
But time offline — as opposed to “time off” where we are still shackled to our screens — made a single weekend as restorative as a fortnight at a swanky medi-spa.
What’s more, I learned from it and now leave my phone at home whenever I can, even if just for a few hours on a night out, or during a Sunday afternoon walk. And, slowly, I am feeling my mind becoming my own again; my senses returning and the pane of glass between me and the world dissolving. It’s only when you step away from your screen that you can truly start to see again.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018