There are two fundamental truths that I have learned as a parent to three kids. The first is that no matter how you choose to raise your child — co-sleeping or separate rooms, breastfed or bottle, organic food or floor snacks — the moment that you claim something you’re doing works, it is guaranteed to stop.
And the second is that everything you do, and I mean literally everything, will now take ten times as much time. Getting dressed to leave the house used to take three minutes. Now it’s 30. Doing the week’s laundry used to take a couple of hours max, most of which could be spent multi-tasking in between loads. Now, the laundry never, ever ends.
Sometimes my husband and I look at each other and ask, “What did we do with our time before we had kids?” We say this, not because we can’t remember, but because it’s incredible that we have managed to cram so much more into the same amount of hours. It’s exhausting.
Which is why I’ve never felt guilty about stealing a few minutes here and there to tune out, to relax, to scroll through mindless junk on my phone. Because we all deserve a break. Except now, I realize that my kids are no longer the biggest demands on my time. My phone is. It’s a massive time-suck that continually draws me in, like a black hole from which I cannot escape.
It’s an addiction.
And it’s ruining my life.
Over the past several months, my husband has repeatedly called me out on my smartphone addiction. “What are you doing Facebooker?” he’ll ask, every … single … time I pick up my phone. Occasionally, these are fighting words. Mostly, they’re just annoying. But they’re easy to brush off because, hey, his smartphone use is just as bad.
But it’s harder to argue I don’t have a problem when I see my behaviour in my kids. That’s the thing about having kids — they’re like little funhouse mirrors that exaggerate our best and worst characteristics. I knew I had a problem when I realized that my one-year-old only — and always — wanted to play with my phone. Even though she has a million toys. Even though she has actual people to interact with. If she sees my phone, she wants it. More than anything else in the world, including me.
It’s not a great feeling when you’re baby chooses your phone over you. I imagine she feels the same way — if not yet, then soon.
But worse than this is what I see in my eight-year-old. We got her an iPod for her last birthday, and in the six months she has owned it, she has had it taken away on multiple occasions for irresponsible use. Like hiding it in her room so that she can stay up hours past her bedtime watching Netflix. Every time she earns it back, she pulls the same stunt and loses her privileges again.
It’s like she can’t control herself.
Like she has an addiction.
So this is why I need to get my own smartphone use under control. So that I can set a better example for my kids. But also, so that I can take back control of my time, and my life.
Why are smartphones addicting?
Smartphones and tablets give us access to a world of information in the palm of our hands. There’s something to be said for that, for the practical applications that has in our lives.
I now have a virtual passenger to give me with reliable directions wherever I need to go. Instead of racking my brain for what to make for supper (arguably, the worst part of any day), I can search my favourite site for recipes that use ingredients I already have. I can access videos on how to safely operate a table saw, or listen to experts explain how digital currency works, or engage with online communities who share my budding interest in gardening.
Now, when I argue with my husband, I can Google verifiable facts to prove that I’m right.
It’s like my childhood dream of being Penny from Inspector Gadget has finally come true: I can learn everything about anything anywhere I am.
What do I do with it? I mindlessly scroll through Facebook photos of friends of friends (a.k.a. people I don’t even know). I play games. I browse Pinterest and Twitter. I window shop online. I tune out the world around me.
I kill time.
Ultimately, I know that nothing good will come from checking Facebook yet again, but I still do it because I anticipate I’ll be rewarded with something interesting, and also because I have an underlying fear that if I don’t, I might miss something.
This is how behavioural addictions work. People compulsively engage in a behaviour — even if it has negative consequences — because in some way the behaviour is rewarding. Sometimes all we need is the anticipation of the reward to drive our compulsions. Like gambling — no matter how much you lose, the prospect of hitting it big keeps you feeding the machine.
The little burst of pleasure we get from reaching a new level in Candy Crush, or reading good news about our Facebook friends (or judging our Facebook frenemies), or having someone like our tweet, or envisioning the sweet Pinterest projects we’re never going to do is enough to keep us going back for more.
The problem is that my phone doesn’t give me that boost anymore. More often than not, checking Facebook or Twitter or my news apps doesn’t make me feel better — it makes me feel worse. Online, it’s easy to get sucked into this void where the world feels like a terrible place inhabited by self-centered and cruel people with a surprising surplus of hate and a startling lack of empathy.
This is in stark contrast to how I experience the world in real life, where I am surrounded by compassionate, hard working, fun loving and genuinely fantastic people. Which again begs the question — where do I really want to spend my time? And if I know that too much time online is bad for my mental health, why is it so hard to disconnect?
How do you treat smartphone addiction?
Could I quit my smartphone cold turkey? It’s not impossible; people still survive without them. And yet that feels a lot like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. My smartphone can be an invaluable tool, as long as I use it for the right things. Like accessing information on things I really want to learn.
Like how to beat behavioural addictions.
Ironically, thanks to my smartphone, I have access to a world of advice on how to not use my smartphone — in 12 steps, or 14 steps or using seven tools — from which I can cherry-pick the tactics that I think will work best for me (many of which are similar to setting and achieving goals). Here are the ones I’m going to try:
- Determine whether you have a problem. I answered yes to five of the six signs listed here and eight of the eleven listed here, so ya, it’s a problem.
- Replace bad habits with good ones. My phone is the first thing I look at when I wake up and the last thing I look at before I fall asleep. Sometimes I wake up and I’m still holding it in my hand. Do you know what I used to do before bed? Read books. I used to fall asleep with a book in my hand. So instead of scrolling through my phone at night, I’m going to read.
- Set rules. I will no longer mindlessly scroll on my phone in the presence of other people, including my family (even the one-year-old).
- Measure your progress. I find it way too easy to fudge the truth when I’m only accountable to myself. In my mind, I think: I had a few cookies. In reality, I ate 12. So I really don’t trust myself to be honest with myself about how much time I actually spend online. Which is why I’ve downloaded the Moment – Screen Time Tracker app to do it for me.
- Form a support network. I’m going to give my husband and kids carte blanche to call me out when they catch me using my smartphone outside of my set rules. I give you permission to do the same. I might hate you in the moment, but I’ll probably (grudgingly) thank you in the end.
- Persist. Just writing these last few paragraphs has my hands twitching. Because I’m doubtful I’ll be able to stick to this. Because the very thought of not being able to check my phone makes me desperately want to check my phone. But I’m going to give it a shot because I know that the benefits of getting my phone use under control — better relationships, a better life — will be well worth the discomfort of withdrawal in the end.