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10 places and times to liberate from smartphone use

The first steps towards digital balance

Credit: Roderick Aichinger

Smartphone blowback is in full swing. It seems like every journalist is writing about their latest digital detox. Startups like Yondr are popping up to help people turn their concert venues and classrooms into smartphone-free zones. One university even started a Center for Digital Wellness to help its students, in the words of the Center’s director, “balance tech time and face time, training their eyes on fellow humans instead of smart screens.”

One way for all of us to join in this #jomo (“joy of missing out”) jamboree is to carve up places and times to liberate from digital distractions.

Five places to de-smartphone

1. The dinner table: For thousands of years, we have connected with each other over shared meals. It is a time for families, friends, and communities to stay connected, stay informed, laugh, cry, learn and everything in between. Let us not be the generation that ruins what one Atlantic author has called the “quintessential human experience.”

2. The car: If we are alone in the car, of course we should not text, browse, or dial from behind the wheel. Here’s the next step though: if we are not alone in the car, we should still lock our phones away as passengers. I agree with MIT professor Sherry Turkle: “The car is a sacred space for conversation.” How many friendships have been forged on road trips? How many family challenges have been surfaced in rides home from school? How many ideas have been birthed while staring out the window at the passing scene? These are not worth sacrificing to stave off a minute or two of passenger-seat boredom.

3. Watching television or movies: Media multitasking stresses us out, preventing us from fully engaging with — and getting the relaxing benefits of — whatever we are watching. It may seem like taking a break, but to our brain, it is overwhelming our working memory. Let us let our leisure be leisure again and watch one thing at a time.

4. The classroom: The research is overwhelming: we learn and remember way more when we are not multi-tasking, being distracted by texts, or even typing out notes. If something is so easy to learn that you can do it while browsing Facebook, it probably is not very valuable to learn. Research is even starting to come out showing that any laptop use in a college class — even just one laptop — hurts academic performance for the whole class. Even those who themselves are not using laptops are distracted by those sitting near them. For the sake of ourselves and our classmates, we should leave our laptops and cell phones at the door.

5. Public space: A major turning point in the anti-smoking movement was the discovery that second-hand smoke — the experience of non-smokers being in a closed space with smokers — was harmful. Of course, second-hand screentime is not as harmful, but it is still a real problem. We could start treating pulling out a cell phone in, say, a restaurant as similar to pulling out a cigarette. Restaurants and their guests understand that some folks are smokers, but they ask that they smoke in designated areas, so as to avoid second-hand smoke. Similarly, we can understand that some folks need to send a text or make a phone call, but we could start expecting ourselves to check our phones in designated areas, so as to avoid second-hand screen time.

Five times to de-smartphone

In addition to carving out sacred spaces free from smartphone use, we can also carve out sacred times.

1. Nights: If we do not wind down at the end of the day — if we head into sleep with our mind filled with the latest tweets, Facebook comments and emails — we will never fully rest. Bedtime should be a time of reflection on the day and connection with the other folks in our houses — more information from and connection with folks around the world can wait until tomorrow.

2. Mornings: But when we do start connecting again tomorrow, we should wait a bit after we wake up. It is important to center ourselves before we start zipping into our daily routine. If we reach for a phone immediately after waking up, we push aside the perfect time to do just that.

3. Once a week. In addition to carving out nights and mornings, it is important to have longer periods of time for disconnection. This is why many people carve out one day a week to unplug. Famous food journalist Mark Bittman popularized the idea in a seminal 2008 New York Times column where he describes his weekly routine of being “free of screens, bells and beeps… an old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.” Building up to the habit was hard, but he did it in baby steps. Quoting executive coach Andrea Bauera, he reminds us that “you can’t run five miles if you’ve never run at all” and you cannot start a weekly digital detox if you have not done a few mini-detoxes beforehand. But he eventually was able to do it easily: “the walks, naps and reading became routine, and all as enjoyable as they were before I had to force myself into doing them.” The achievement of routinizing a weekly digital break was “unlike any other” in his life. And, he happily added, nothing bad happened while he was offline: “the e-mail and phone messages, RSS feeds” were all there waiting for him when he returned.

4. Meetings: Multitasking is a myth. When we think we are multitasking, we are not actually multitasking; we are actually switching between tasks in rapid succession. So, when we are answering emails or responding to texts during a meeting, we are are actually just answering emails and then engaging in the meeting and then answering emails and then engaging in the meeting. This creates a “response selection bottleneck” in our brain as we struggle to decide which of the two tasks — paying attention to our phone or paying attention to the meeting — we should attend to during any given second. So when we are texting while engaging in a meeting, we are actually doing three tasks poorly: texting, engaging in the meeting, and deciding whether we should be texting or engaging in the meeting. This all seems very tiring and unproductive — and it a good reason to make meeting-time a smartphone-free zone.

5. Around children: First, our children need our attention: ignoring them to scroll an Instagram feed of, say, other people’s kids sends a dangerous message about our priorities. Second, our children need our example. As Frances Booth writes: “If you always have your BlackBerry on the dining table, you’ll be on very thin ice when they want to do the same.” We should make this choice easy by always putting away our phones when kids show up.

Indeed, we do not have to go full Luddite to fight back against digital overload. By limiting the places and times we are able to use our digital devices, we can slowly wean ourselves down from technology addiction to mastery over our attention.

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