What Really Happens When a Screen Addict Goes on a Tech Fast

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

The second story was from WNYC’s radio show “The Takeaway,” which was encouraging listeners to do a one-week “put-your-phone-away” challenge. The show argues that if you’re glued to your device every waking minute, you’re never allowing yourself to experience boredom. The Takeaway’s challenge encourages participants to experience those first itchy feelings of boredom, and rather than scratch them with a hit of Facebook or email, learn to live with the discomfort. That discomfort—boredom—is the beginning of creativity.

Of course, I read one of these stories on my desktop and listened to the other on my laptop. And, OK, yes, I have lately noticed an unhealthy addiction to my phone, an object I constantly fiddle with like I used to nervously fiddle with cigarettes—passing them from finger to finger over the back of my knuckles. And, just like I sometimes used to think, “I need a cigarette,” while I was smoking a cigarette, sometimes the grubby dopamine-rewards part of my brain will order me to check Facebook while I am already reading Facebook. (I’ve always been a monkey pressing a lever, it’s just that the lever has changed.)

When I try to “cut back” on the phone fondling, clicking, tapping, and swiping, my lizard brain devolves into the clock-watching and bargain-making of the addict: “It’s after five, I can check now.” Or, “if you go half an hour without checking, you have proved this is not a problem for you. So it’s okay to check.”

It’s like being on a perpetual bender. So, my husband and I decided to try a weekend of no screens.

On Friday afternoon I desperately emailed everyone I knew and said, “No email or texting for me this weekend, so call me on the telephone if you need me!” And then we shut down the computers and set the phones on a shelf.

First things first: Literally no one called. While our weekends usually include a certain small amount of socializing—meeting at the park for an impromptu play date, asking friends over last minute for a meal—that didn’t happen, because we didn’t think to invite anyone before Friday. For our friends, I guess seeing us was not important enough to merit actually talking on the phone. To be fair, we didn’t call anyone either, which implies we have devolved into people so phone-avoidant that we would rather sit alone than dial a number. (In fact, when my son pretend-plays he’s talking on the phone, it’s always in a very belligerent voice—”I’m telling you that it is not working“—making me realize that phones, these days, are solely for yelling at health insurance representatives.) I disliked talking on the phone before texting, and now I’m positively phobic about it.

Second: Entertainment was limited. No screens means no TV or movies. It also meant very limited music options, as we haven’t bought CDs since the advent of Napster, iTunes, Spotify and Pandora. Nonetheless, we dusted off our meager collection of ’90s-era albums. Unable to plop the kids in front of a video of an evening, we played “name that tune” with them from the CD collection. “Is it ‘Free Falling’?” “Yes, it is. Your turn.” “Is it ‘I Won’t back Down’?” “Yes, it is, it is. Your turn.” “Is it…that other Tom Petty song?” “Yes, correct!”

And then there was the other smaller, screen-based administrative stuff, which we merely postponed until Monday: Our financial life is on the computer, so we couldn’t work on taxes or enter expenses. Also the calculator, so I added up the babysitter’s hours by hand. I wrote checks for a bill or two instead of paying online. When I went to the gym, not only was I music-less, but I couldn’t use the timer for my exercises or watch anything on the treadmill. I had no access to my address book. Because we don’t have a paper calendar, we spent a good 10 minutes counting on our fingers trying to figure out what day of the week our son’s birthday fell on. We have two clocks in our house that are perpetually wrong because the kids mess with them, so we just guessed at naptime and bedtime. I felt like we were living in a walking isolation unit.

So screen-free living, for us at least, is unsustainable day-in and day-out. The screen ship has sailed: Literally everything we need to function, besides oxygen and Trader Joe’s—and TJ’s has an app—is on a phone or computer.

But here was the big surprise, emotionally: I felt much, much less jangly.

In a typical day, I am juggling probably 15 things at once, at least nine of them virtual. Let’s say I am trying to get the kids up the three flights of stairs to our apartment. The toddler—whom the pediatrician describes as being on the “hulking” end of the height-weight chart—is refusing to climb the steps. He’s also emitting a kind of shrill whining-keening sound specially designed to dislodge eyeballs. The 5-year-old is saying things like, “What exactly is Flash’s power?” And I say, while hauling the toddler—it’s like carrying an obese Labrador—”Um, I think he’s really fast?” And then the 5-year-old says, “Who is?” and I say, pausing for breath on the second landing—it’s like carrying Brian Dennehy—”Flash,” and he says, “What about Flash?” like you’re two Borscht Belt comedians. And I grind out, bent under the weight of the refrigerator, “Flash! Is really fast!” and the 5-year-old says with an obstinacy apropos of nothing, “No, he’s not.”

Any other day, when I’m dealing with this and also tuning in to 30 different conversations via email/text/Twitter/news alert streaming across the screen of my phone—one about a friend’s bad day at work, another with my mother about the eye doctor, a third about a potential afternoon playdate, a fourth from my accountant with an alarming subject line like HAH LEIGH DON’T KID A KIDDER, not to mention the RIPs on Facebook that inevitably send brief shots of grief through me—well, my temper frays fast.

All of those communications are little streamers of emotion that cloud your mental space, however briefly, fracturing your mood like a mirror. My temper is much, much shorter when there are 17 stimuli—grief, scheduling, commiseration, laughter, etc.—instead of two.

What I’m saying is, despite the fatigue and irritability on my phone-free stair climb, at least I was feeling only those feelings, which was actually, in a weird way, kind of meditative. I was feeling purely irritable, not irritable but also on high alert.

During our phone-free weekend, I was able to tend to my kids without the perpetual static of the virtual world clouding our interactions. And frankly, it was also nice to have time with my husband without all those other conversations intruding—as much as I’m interested in what the MLB message boards are saying and as much as he’s interested in political gossip, it was a novelty to have just our own selves and thoughts in the room. It felt like a retreat.

So here’s my takeaway: Give it a try, it’s refreshing. I mean, of course, as soon as you close this screen.

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