Breaking up with your smartphone is really, really hard – just ask these people

MAYA Oren wants to dial back her dependence on her smartphone. She plans to do it slowly by getting a new phone – a simple one that doesn’t download apps or take photos or send her notifications. Her new device will place calls and receive them.

But the 27-year-old Washington, DC, entrepreneur isn’t planning to entirely ditch her iPhone to which she has an increasingly dysfunctional relationship.

“I wake up in the morning and my heart is racing out of my chest,” she says. “I’m checking Instagram. How many new followers did I get? How many people did I lose? What am I going to post today?”

Oren’s new phone won’t have its own number – it will simply accept calls forwarded from her iPhone, so she can attempt, on occasion, to step away from the shiny, buzzing rectangle that has come to feel like an ever-present taskmaster.

That’s right – she’s thinking of buying a new phone so she can try to spend less time with her old one.

Maya Oren, 27, of Washington, DC, is deeply concerned about her relationship with her smartphone and what it’s doing to her life and her brain
“I hope as a society we would take this collective breath,” says Maya Oren, who is strategising how to cut back on her smartphone usage

You got a better idea?

The past few months have brought an escalating awareness of the perils that lurk in our pockets. Or, most of the time, in the vice-like grip of our hands. Some across the country have called for digital detoxes. There’s been a fresh wave of articles about how to curb our smartphone addictions. And a small parade of former tech executives have come forward to raise alarms that their innovations are, perhaps, just a teensy-weensy bit evil and could be a destructive force acting upon both our psyches and our democracy. Oops!

Anyway, here we are, in what Larry Rosen, a psychologist who studies society’s relationship with technology, refers to as a “really interesting pit”. He thinks we’re going to sink even deeper into the abyss of smartphone obsession, though not so deep we can never escape.

But, for the moment, there’s no ladder in sight. How can we use all the tools and conveniences smartphones offer without becoming ensnared by the widgets that have us – often unconsciously – staring at screens instead of our loved ones?

One by one, agitated people are trying to break the trance. Hence, Maya Oren’s desire for that new gadget, called the Light Phone, marketed toward millennials with a mission statement that declares, “multi-tasking is a myth” and that “our phones have become our nervous habit, our invisible crutch”.

Will Yoste, a 24-year-old project manager in Oxford, Mississippi, found himself feeling “phantom vibrations”, so he deleted his Facebook app, which is helping a little.

Kay Rhind, a 52-year-old sales director in Silicon Valley, cuts off her home’s Wi-Fi at 11pm every night and downloaded an app that allows her to shut off her three teenagers’ phones remotely.

Andrew Martin, a research librarian in DC, put his little girls on a seven-day no-screen challenge. And those girls wisely insisted that Martin and his wife, Julie, put their own devices away.

“It’s really made us realise how insidious the addiction to these screens in our pockets are,” Martin says. “If you have more than 30 seconds without stimulation you have this twitch to reach for your cellphone.”

Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped invent the iPod, wants to make one thing clear: “The devices themselves are not addictive,” he says. “That’s like saying a refrigerator is addictive. No, it’s the food inside them. The devices are not addictive, but the things they deliver can be addictive” (See: Twitter, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Netflix shows).

Fadell’s oldest son was born a few weeks before the introduction of the iPhone. Fadell saw what happened when he took devices away from his kids – “They would get really anxious and upset”, and he noticed that adults had a fairly similar reaction. His family started ‘screen-free Sundays’ and banned smartphone use in the morning. But that didn’t feel like enough.

So Fadell has become vocal in calling for tech companies such as Apple to give people new mechanisms to control their smartphone usage. If a phone can count our steps, can’t it count our minutes on social media? And eliminate notifications?

“What we’re asking for is not much,” he says. “It’s just helpful. And it’s 10 times easier than self-driving cars.”

Article after article about smartphone addiction offer similar advice on how to cut back: Don’t use your phone an hour before bed, don’t charge it in your bedroom, and don’t check it first thing in the morning and delete social media apps.

Yes! All good advice that would totally work, except they rely on self-control, which we have proved not to have in this domain.

Are they an addiction we intuitively know is unhealthy – even without the confirmation of hard evidence – but continue because, well, everyone’s doing it?

Maya Oren thinks so. Oren generates digital marketing content for a living, and she’s grateful for the online connections her smartphone has wrought, even as she grapples with its hold on her attention.

So, she’s taking baby steps. She bought an old-school alarm clock and has tried, with mixed success, to wake up to that instead of her cellphone. And, when she’s walking around, she tries to keep her phone in her bag rather than in the palm of her hand. Baby steps – but it’s a start.

“I hope as a society we would take this collective breath,” she says.

“Take a step back and use our phones more as the utility they were meant to be – rather than as this appendage of our bodies.” Text and Photos by The Washington Post