Reducing phone dependence (and not getting stabbed)

Posted on 6 min read
Imagine the conversations that happen here. Greece, 2016.

It is not unusual to hear that there has been some sort of problem with a child at school. These students weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths. They aren’t hand-held. They are discovering how to get on within society by trial and error. Sometimes a lot of error.

Occasionally though, a story you hear doesn’t seem to fit.

One morning I found myself sitting chatting with a teenager, practicing exam questions. Her English was smooth, her answers grammatically intact, she had a clean face, her hair neatly brushed. The sort of student you don’t worry about.

But behind the scenes I knew that her story was more complex

That week she’d brandished a kitchen knife at her mother.

Because?

Because her mother had tried to take her phone away from her.

At first I couldn’t believe it

But then I began noticing how frequently the students were touching their phones in class. How when they were straining to find the vocabulary to speak with me, beneath the desk they were caressing their phones like a comfort blanket.

In our heads we might think, how can a child be addicted to her phone, but in our hearts we know a deeper truth. As a society we’re more dependent on our phones than we would like.

When we’re happy, when life is going well, this phone-reliance doesn’t necessarily strike us as a problem

It might strike us as annoying when conversations with friends get derailed by a bleep or a flash, and sometimes we find that more time has slid by than we intended, but by and large we’re just doing as everyone else around us seems to be. It all seems pretty normal.

But life isn’t all butterflies and sunshine. There are days where the phone feels like an anchor and we are terrified of drifting away. Fingers flick across the screen as if it were an activity as necessary as breathing. We’re seeking out notifications, a moment of acknowledgment of our existence, and a balm for the discomfort of reality.

This article will talk about two techniques I started using when I was in therapy, and one used by my sister.

  1. A desk drawer
  2. Knitting
  3. De-notification

I love writing and so writing was always going to be a big part of my therapy

Recording how I was feeling, finding words to express the inexpressible, pounding the keys and seeing the words appear on the screen, all this gave me a sense of being me again. But it was touch and go at one point, because beside my keyboard I would place my phone.

My desk is one of those beautiful green-leather topped creations

I rescued it from a junk shop in Wales, telling the man that if he could fit it in my car I would buy it from him. He grinned. Of course the desk would fit. The two legs, thick blocks of ornate wooden drawers detach from the surface, making it easy to slide straight into my car.

It was these drawers, the top ones which are lockable, which I turned to when my mind was a mess. My technique was not complex. All I did was move my phone from resting on the green leather surface to laying in a drawer amongst my papers.

This created a barrier

And the barrier made me think, it made me realise how frequently I was reaching out to my phone. It didn’t stop me looking, but it made me more aware of how often I actually did so. Which made me see how ridiculous I was being, and so, slowly, I stopped.

And began to write more.

But not everyone is trying to create more writing space

My sister doesn’t write in the same obsessive manner as I do. And so the technique she has taken up is slightly different. I visited her for Christmas and was astounded to see a large ball of white wool squished between the sofa cushions.

“My psychotherapist suggested I find something to do with my hands,” she explained

I could understand this. She’s always been a fidgeter, tapping surfaces, wobbling tables, tearing serviettes into tiny pieces. And touching her phone had taken a similar role. Like drumming her fingers on the dining-room table, her constant phone use had become rather anti-social, but unlike tapping her fingers, her phone was just making her feel more and more anxious, whilst simultaneously becoming more and more addictive.

Knitting seems to have stepped into this role

At Christmas she was simply working on white squares. White was the colour wool she’d found, a remnant of when the Nonna taught us both to knit as children, but since then the Mother has provided her with different colours, and my sister has developed her squares to include different stitches.

It’s a simple way that she keeps her hands busy in the evenings. She doesn’t, after all, want to lose count.

But what do we do about the bleeping screams of our phones?

My second technique (the third in this article), and the one that felt more ruthless, involved saying no to notifications. At first this felt like something rather rude. As my life is moving from solely revolving around being my mother’s poorly child to an independent adult I am having to be a little more lenient in some respects, but in general I don’t have a half-hearted approach for notifications.

I want to choose when you’re allowed to interrupt me.

So I went into the app notifications part of my phone settings and turned off everything

If an email arrives, nothing happens. If someone comments on an Instagram post, the first I will know about it is when I open up Instagram. And if you have me on WhatsApp, unless I would consider myself one of your emergency contacts (i.e. you are my sister), you can assume that you are muted.

Basically, the only people likely to ever get an instantaneous response are my parents and my sister. If we have plans in the next day or two I might unmute you, temporarily. But otherwise my phone behaves as if I had no friends whatsoever.

Now I have a boss and a few clients, I occasionally make a few additional exceptions. When a lesson is cancelled I do want to know. But in general I still stick to my approach of limiting instantaneousness to the moments when I’m the one choosing to chat.

Maybe this lack of availability strikes you as crazy or selfish

Or worse, like I’m avoiding life, running away from people who just want to chat. But this is not the case. This technique allows me to have bigger, substantial chunks of time which I can dedicate to the people I love in a meaningful manner. Instead of a constant pattering back and forth I tend to invite my friends to come visit me, schedule video calls and write longer more in-depth emails.

I have many friends at home with whom I want to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship, but I don’t need to know what they’re doing today, or tomorrow, or even next week. I need to clear time in my diary for them, and then I need to live my life so that when we do talk, I have something worthwhile to say.

You might imagine that ignoring people upsets them

But I actually get more people apologising for pestering me than complaining that I’m ignoring them. And those people who do complain that I’m ignoring them, or not being a very good friend… well I start to question how healthy our relationship actually is.

These are just three tiny techniques

But by using an array of tiny techniques we can start to build a better relationship with our phones.

To recap:

  1. Put your phone behind a barrier such as in a drawer or separate room
  2. Occupy your hands when you’re most likely to mindlessly flick back and forth
  3. Switch off all but the most essential notifications to remove the flashes and beeps that steal your attention

But where does that leave our knife wielding teenager?

We can’t know. I cross my fingers and hope that someone in her life will demonstrate how to have a healthy relationship with technology to her, and in the meantime, her dependence will be treated with kindness and as the serious addiction, the illness, that it has become.

So what can you do today?

Get mindful about who’s watching how you use your phone. Are you setting a good example, or do you need to experiment with some of these techniques?