Phone Hell


Today marks the publication of yet another study telling us that our screens are making us miserable. Psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University looked at survey results from more than a million U.S. 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders and found that those who spent more than an hour a day gazing into the rectangular abyss were unhappier and that gloom levels were correlated with screen time. The study also reports that teenagers are more miserable than they were in 2012 when apparently fewer of them had smartphones.

Now, I’d just like to point out some possible additional variables here. In 2012 Barack Obama won the presidency for the second time and as Atlantic journalist Molly Ball wrote, “his embrace of liberal stances on social issues, and the simultaneous victories for causes like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization seemed to herald the dawn of a new, more liberal America.” So yeah…it might be possible that it isn’t the screen that is making us miserable, but what we see through it. Trump. Climate change. Men being horrible. Nazis. Rising inequality. Trump.

I have thought about getting rid of mine completely. Yet as tempting as it might be to set my phone on fire, I need to know what is going on in this country of ours if I am going to fight for a better world–and editors these days expect to be able to get ahold of me on short notice. My phone allows me to leave the house.

Arianna Huffington apparently has a new app that will save us all from the hell of phone dependency, but excuse me if I mistrust her alleged concern for my wellbeing given that she popularized a business model premised on not paying writers. Besides, her app isn’t yet available for the iPhone.

What’s needed is balance. Or self control. Despite not being well known for either, I humbly offer a few tips for limiting screen time and re-engaging with the real world.

  • Smear your phone with raw meat and bury it in the backyard. Wait to check Twitter until the dog digs it up.
  • Give your phone to your children and ask them to hide it. A fun game for the whole family! Tell them they can’t tell you where it is, even if you start to cry or begin to murmur the word “Mueller” over and over in a weird whispery voice.
  • Write a real letter to a friend. Art is encouraged, but no drawing emojis!
  • Instead of keeping your phone under your pillow when you sleep, set it across the room, so when you wake up at 3:00 AM with a feeling of impending doom and just want to make sure no one has launched any nuclear missiles since you went to bed, you’ll have to get up to check. Exercise!
  • Read a physical book. You could start with a children’s picture book, and just pretend that the illustrations are a pair of shoes you thought about buying three weeks ago or some kind of diet scam involving kelp.
  • Take a bath with your phone after a few stiff scotches and accidentally drop it in.

These are just a few ideas. Get creative! The key thing to remember is that you have the power to take a break. And you might need to now and then. The world can be bleak and the digital world turns that bleakness into a strangely compelling sushi train of despair, black humor, and outrage. In the real world, the bleakness is there, but it it mottled with loveliness and, crucially, plenty of calm dullness.

Dullness is good for you. If I’m not mistaken, this whole mindfulness craze is basically about doing the dullest thing you can think of and then not thinking about anything. And it apparently turns you into a joyful, compassionate millionaire in no time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go take a boring-ass walk, sans phone, to reduce my misery index, and then come home and call my congressman and my editor. After that, who knows. Maybe I’ll take a bath.


Photo:  American X-ray journal, 1902, via Flickr

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5 thoughts on “Phone Hell

  1. I took your advice to bathe with my phone and a bottle of scotch. You failed to mention the importance of unplugging the phone. My doctor suggests updating the post.

  2. Sitting outside, in nature, sans technology is a cure all for most of what ails me. One more suggestion: delete your FB, Twitter or other social media accounts.

  3. Haven’t had a cellphone (remember those days, before smartphones?) in over a decade and am better for it. Although it does drive my friends nuts. Life continues …

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