When I started to become an observant Orthodox Jew seven years ago, I came to realize the depth of my dependency on technology. There are many rules observant Orthodox Jews follow, but one of the most difficult relates to technology. On the Jewish Sabbath, a twenty-five-hour time period between Friday night and Saturday night, technology goes dormant. When the Sabbath begins, phones, iPads, televisions, radios, Kindles, etc. are turned off for the entire day. Instead of driving around on errands or to activities, instead of sitting on our couches watching television while playing on our phones, instead of spending the day in the kitchen cooking (which is also not allowed), the day is spent eating already-prepared food, reading books, and enjoying the fellowship of our friends and family.
The first several months of observance, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone dozens of times a day—whenever there was a lag in conversation, a boring passage in a book, while I waited for the Brita water filter to fill, before I went to sleep, and immediately upon waking up. It’s clear I was hooked; psychologically and physically.
In the September issue of The Atlantic Jean Twenge makes the case for how smartphones have destroyed an entire generation. The long form piece is chilling and supported by decades of Twenge’s data-gathering efforts. There is no denying smartphones are changing us all, and not for the better.
Even though I spend one day a week off of my phone, it’s still jarring just how much of my time it occupies. I downloaded a phone app, Moment, to track how much time I’m spending on it and to badger me to turn it off. On my best days, I spend over three hours mindlessly using the device. I’m often on it for double that amount of time. What am I doing? According to the app (which asks you to photograph your phone’s battery usage page) I’m scrolling Twitter, the Internet, and Instagram the most. Before I downloaded the application, I felt like perhaps I spent too much time on my phone; I am now chilled by how much time I’ve wasted. Granted, as a columnist, keeping up with the news and maintaining my social media presence has value; as does the time I spend actually writing and connecting with editors while away from my computer. But what might I achieve by disconnecting?
One Hollywood celebrity is talking about just that. Aziz Ansari, the creator, writer and star of the Netflix show Master of None recently revealed how turning his smartphone into a dumb phone changed his life. As GQ reported:
“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content,” Ansari said. “It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore.”
“When I first took the browser off my phone, I’m like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up?'” he said. “But most of the sh-t you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you’re in a cab, you don’t need to look at any of that stuff. It’s better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there’s a new thing. And read a book instead. I’ve been doing it for a couple months and it’s worked. I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.”
My friend, Kate, who just finished her residency program in medical school, posted Ansari’s remarks on Facebook. Residents are not known for their free time, and yet, as Kate remarked, “Since starting residency I have complained that I have no time to read a novel but just forced myself to do it this month. It turns out there’s a wealth of free time to be found in cutting down on phone time.”
Now that I recognize just how tight of a hold my phone has over me, I’ve tried putting myself through a boot camp of sorts on the Moment app. Some of the prompts the creators encourage for decreased phone dependency and usage include: “Stop sleeping with your phone,” “turn off some notifications,” “no phone in the bathroom,” and “get outside (and leave your phone at home).” None of this advice would have felt like a challenge ten years ago; and yet, now they require drastic changes in a behavior that has become so ingrained it’s a habit. Reaching for my phone is now part of my muscle memory.
Personally and socially, it’s clear smartphones have become a dangerous and damaging addiction. Recognizing the hold they have on us is the first necessary step we must take to untangle ourselves from their effects.