Remember Life Before the iPhone? I Tried to Go 5 Days Without a Smartphone, and Here Are the Humiliating Details
I would like to tell you all what happens when a dyed-in-the-wool smartphone addict doesn't use a smartphone for a week. I'd like to tell you what you can learn when you break the shackles of smartphone use, how free and beautiful life is when it's not constantly interrupted by random beeps and flashes and alerts that someone you know on Twitter is now following someone else you know on Twitter. I'd like to. But I can't.
Because over the course of five shame-filled days and nights, I found that, no matter what I did, I couldn't tear myself away from my phone. Nearly every time I thought I had my addiction beat, I gave in and checked my phone. I am a smartphone detox failure.
Not that there's anything abnormal about that. Despite the recent boatload of trend pieces about celebrities like Rihanna and Anna Wintour using flip phones as a fashion statement, and a steady stream of rapturous personal essays detailing the simpler, happier life available to folks willing to deal with T9 texting, the facts is that 58 percent of Americans now own a smartphone. Most of us also spend 58 minutes a day using our smartphones, and the angles we contort our necks into while tweeting and texting are turning into a public health problem called "text neck." The fact that we're slaves to our phones isn't heartening, but it's also not late-breaking news.
I proposed this experiment to my editor: no texting, no apps, no looking at websites on my phone, no checking the weather, nothing. I would not warn any of my friends in advance that I was doing this experiment. I was not to use the phone for anything but phone calls (which I almost never make) for five days.
But until last week, I lived under a veil of delusion that this addiction somehow excluded me. Because, you see, while I've owned a smartphone for three years, I didn't really think of myself as a "smartphone person." I bought it for work! I need to field professional emails on the go, don't you see? And if the device that allows me to field these emails also allows me to tweet on the bus or play Candy Crush while pooping, well, so be it. But I wasn't, god forbid, into phones. Smartphone obsession was for children and Kardhasians. I was above it.
I covered up my addiction with a lot of classic overcompensation. I escewed iPhones for no-contract Androids, cheap phones with cheap service plans that crashed half the time when you tried to do anything more complicated than turn them on. How can you be obsessed with smartphones if yours is manufactured by a company called "Zorny"? How could I care that much about a thing that I wouldn't even shell out decent money for? I was probably just bored, is all. If I took up Zumba or calligraphy or something, I'd probably never look at my phone again.
I got an inkling about my problem, however, the weekend before the experiment, when I dropped my latest phone in a toilet. The 24 hours from toilet drop to procuring a new phone were shot through with agony — how was I going to tell people that I was running late? How was I going to find directions if I was lost? WHO WAS TEXTING ME AND ASSUMING THAT I WAS IGNORING THEM? When I finally booted up my new phone, relief washed over me in an awesome wave.
But that panic, I told myself, had just been about feeling out of control, not about my phone obsession. Right? Trying to reassure myself, I proposed this experiment to my editor: no texting, no apps, no looking at websites on my phone, no checking the weather, nothing. I would not warn any of my friends in advance that I was doing this experiment. I was not to use the phone for anything but phone calls (which I almost never make) for five days. Once the five days had passed, and I saw how much better and brighter my life was without my phone, I could have my identity as a groovy technophobe back. Because I only even got this phone for work, right?
As I booted up for the first day of the experiment, I was a little excited. I've often complained about feeling compelled to constantly check my phone for new work-related messages, a loop that somehow usually ends with me checking my messages, then sticking around to look at Instagram photos of Emma Roberts doing pilates. I cast myself as the victim, a hapless Luddite gal somehow swept up in a web of tech culture that she never meant to engage with. I used pay phones when I moved to New York, damn it! I lived the most social, most promiscuous years of my life without a smartphone, or even texting! Surely, I could survive five days as a boring-ass 32-year-old without a phone. Like, I can order Seamless from my laptop too, right?
In fact, I was proud of myself for having a drinks date with a friend in an unfamiliar area of town that night, as if to further prove to myself how great I was at not using a smartphone. I wrote down the name of the bar, its street address, and even some detailed directions on a Post-It before leaving. I then took the 45 minute train ride out there reading a book, ignoring my phone, and being smugly proud of myself.
But two or three hours into the evening, I realized my first mistake. I had assumed that I only depended on smartphones for directions or entertainment, and that if I took care of those needs in advance, I'd be fine. But I began to see that I depend on them for much more: I depend on smartphones to reassure myself that people like me. When my friend hit the bathroom, I thought "Just a peek. JUST to see if there are any super-important work emails that someone sent me at 10 p.m. on Wednesday night."
Since I am a blogger who writes about vaginal mucus, there were obviously no pressing work emails. But I saw a text from my boyfriend. "Better text him just so he knows when I'm coming home," I thought. I saw a few emails from friends. "Better reply to these so they know our weekend plans are still on!" I told myself. I saw an email from my dad, sending me a New York Times article. "Better write back to this, just in case my dad doesn't think I take literacy seriously!" I was still on my phone, pecking away at my touchscreen, when my friend came back.
Figuring that the experiment was blown for the day, I whipped out my phone on the train ride back, too, texting my boyfriend and playing Candy Crush. What? Today was a fluke! Fresh start tomorrow!
Time spent on smartphone: 45 minutes
I woke up on Thursday with the optimism and slightly guilty conscience of a dieter who housed a can of vanilla frosting in the middle of the night: yes, that was bad, but today is a new chance to do better! Plus, I didn't have any evening plans, so staying off my phone should be a cakewalk, right?
Some of my most shameful smartphone junkie habits — like checking my email on my phone while I am sitting at my actual computer — were easy to pause. I checked email and tweeted from my laptop, I didn't play any phone games, and I resisted the impulse to Instagram strangers' dogs. But even with all those urges firmly in check, even with nowhere I needed to be, my boyfriend at my physical side, and all of my friends a mere email a way ... my phone tempted me. What if someone was texting me something really cool, and then I didn't answer, and then they never texted me again? What am I going to do, DESTROY MY ENTIRE LIFE, just for a stupid experiment?
I checked my phone, just to see. When one friend had texted me a joke about Nashville, I felt vindicated. "ha ha" I texted back. Phew! Social life saved! I celebrated by playing Candy Crush for about an hour and a half.
Time spent on smartphone: 90 minutes
By the end of Thursday, I had realized some hard truths about myself: I was a junkie, and I could not be trusted. I couldn't keep my phone turned on in case someone called, because that led to me checking to see if I had any missed calls, which led to me "accidentally" checking my texts and Twitter and playing with the button that could turn your TV on and off. I had to keep the whole thing turned off.
So on Thursday night, I shut my phone down, and for the first time in recent memory, used an actual clock as an alarm. On Friday morning, I remembered why I had switched over to a phone alarm — I spent 30 seconds groggily groping in the dark, trying to figure out how to turn my damned alarm off as the clock radio wailed Toto's "Africa."
But I got through my morning footloose and phone-free, and everything was going fine ... until lunch. I hadn't been lying to myself about using the phone for work, but I may have been lying to myself about how I used it for work: I use it to work away from my desk, by which I mean I use it to go on a coffee run midday without telling my bosses that I'm going for a coffee run or quick lunch. Not like they keep me tethered to a desk and I have to sneak out when they're gone, a la Flowers in the Attic — I just hate asking for things, and smartphones make it a little easier to do what you like during the day, without asking for special permission.
So as I left to grab a quick lunch with a friend, I somberly assessed my options. I could tell my boss that I'd be offline for half an hour ... or I could chance it. "Chance it!" I thought. "Nothing's going to happen over half an hour! You're going to be fine."
Yet over the course of the meal, I felt worry gnaw at my stomach. What if this was the one half hour where something did happen? What if a war broke out? What if Congress suddenly began rioting? What if Taylor Swift died? I was a newswoman, damn it, and I needed to know.
The facts are, of course, that I am definitely not a newswoman, and that when I turned my phone on 15 minutes into the half hour lunch, there were no new Gchats, no new work emails, and no news of untimely pop star deaths. My friend, taking my lead, whipped out his phone, and we spent the next minute or two scrolling in silence. When I arrived home, I turned the phone off, announced to my empty apartment "I am not together enough to handle this!" and buried it inside a box of headbands.
Time spent on smartphone: 15 minutes
By Saturday afternoon, I'd spent my first solid 24 hours off the phone, and I was starting to enjoy it. I watched a TV show and genuinely watched it, instead of half-watching it and half-reading a Wikipedia entry about Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It." I had sex without being distracted by that "text message received" buzzing. I felt more focused and more relaxed overall. I wondered if, after a few false starts, I had finally broken my addiction.
That was, until I headed out to see a movie across town with a friend, whom I was meeting there. Entering the subway station, I saw a huge backlog of people on the platform, which could only mean one thing: there was something wrong with the train. I waited for 20 minutes, then decided to leave the station, and wandered the rainy streets, looking for a cab.
I realized that I had no option but to call my friend to tell him I'd be late. "Not that he'll probably pick it up," I thought. "It'll probably go to his voicemail, and he'll get it in three hours." Bringing the phone to my ear, I saw that I had texts. Already in a terrible mood, I decided to just forget about the experiment, and check them.
The text from my friend, sent hours ago, read "Trains messed up very badly! Leave early!" I actually howled in frustration in the middle of the sidewalk. I was mad about the rain, and the train, and the lack of cabs, and the chance that I would miss my movie, of course. But most of all, I was mad at myself.
I texted my friend, "Just saw this text now, running late, sorry!" I petulantly left my phone on for the rest of the night, checking it regularly, as if to just prove that I could.
Time spent on smartphone: 35 minutes
With the end in sight, I was able to finally keep my phone off for an entire day. I took a walk, went to the gym, and even got into a fight with a teenager on Twitter who was incensed that I had misspelled "Lana Del Rey," all without my phone. And yet, it wasn't a particularly relaxing day. I now knew I had a problem. My smartphone dominated my thoughts, even when I wasn't using it.
And yet, total smartphone abstinence didn't seem like the right option, either. I got to live a richer life when I was free to work away from my home. I led a more active social life when I didn't have to make phone calls, which have always filled me with anxiety. I liked it when my dad texted me links to New York Times articles that I was never going to read. I liked having a smartphone in my life, even if I seemed hellbent on abusing it.
If anything, my week trying to stay off the phone taught me that smartphones are less of a menace than I thought they were. Yes, I'm addicted, but smartphones don't automatically turn us into zombies. They're just little mirrors, reflecting the ugliest, most flawed versions of ourselves back at us, the parts obsessed with attention and love and coolness, the parts we can indulge when there's no one there to check our behavior. And if we don't like what we see, well, that one's on us.
At 1 a.m., still awake, I figured, the experiment's over, what the hell, stop torturing yourself and get back to living a normal life. I flicked my phone on. There were no messages, of course.
Time spent on smartphone: 0 minutes.