Chances are, if you see someone alone, they’re probably on their phone. I’m guilty of this too—texting while waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner, scrolling through “Man Repeller” articles before class starts and sending memes to my friends when I should be asleep. If a person followed you around and interrupted you hundreds of times a day, you would probably get pissed off within a few minutes. This is what we allow our phones to do. And rather than becoming annoyed, we become dependent on the constant interruptions.
It’s true that our phones are packed with useful information—in this digital age, it’s easy to stay connected with friends and access virtually any information ever known by human beings. Yet, the desire to stay informed has become a compulsive reflex to be constantly checking platforms and websites that update faster than any human has time to process.
The only person more irritating than the phone-aholic is the holier-than-thou phone minimalist (“I just feel sooooo authentic after deleting all my apps!”), and neither are sustainable options for a balanced life. Everybody is different—the same social media platform that might trigger anxiety in one person could serve as another’s crucial connection to their international friends. The complexity of our phones is part of the reason it is so difficult to disconnect. Perhaps you’re waiting for an important email from a job you’ve applied to, so you leave your ringer on. This is a rational choice; you’ll want to know as soon as possible whether or not you’ve gotten the job. But once your notifications become audible, suddenly your phone is pinging every minute with spam emails, social media notifications, reminders to check into apps, discounts at your favorite stores and messages from that girl you went to high school with trying to scam you into joining her pyramid scheme. Trying to do something responsible for yourself—making sure you’re notified about a job opportunity—has turned into a stress-inducing deluge of information that you don’t need in that moment, or even at all.
This barrage of information is entirely intentional. Former Google Design Ethicist and co-founder of the non-profit Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris has dedicated his career to recognizing and reconfiguring the ways technology affects our society. His work recognizes the ways technology—including apps, websites and phones themselves—is strategically designed to hijack our time and keep us vulnerable to outrage, stress and persuasion. From calling out Snapchat streaks for turning conversations into competitions to recognizing Instagram’s algorithms designed to keep showing pictures and products that erode self-worth, Harris is demanding that technology companies be more ethical in their design decisions.
Not everyone can dedicate their lives to ethical technology design, however. While many technology companies are taking small steps forward by providing consumers with tools like screen time tracking and adjustable time limits for apps, much of the responsibility for managing our screen time lies on us.
There isn’t an easy solution to our constant distraction. Because our phones are useful in so many ways, it might not be a reasonable option to chuck every iPhone on campus into the Fox River. Plus, it’s polluted enough already. However, it might be worth taking inventory of how much time each of us spends on our phones and how it makes us feel—not only in the moment that we’re on our phones, but in every moment. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to assume that waking up in the morning and immediately scrolling through a social media feed full of angry political opinions and heavily edited pictures might cloud that day’s events. And constantly checking your phone on a date could not only keep you from forming an emotional bond with a new partner, but might also straight up insult them.
It’s our individual responsibility to notice these behaviors in ourselves and our social responsibility to notice them in the people we care about. Phone usage is a sensitive topic; many people use their phones as an unhealthy escape from the stressors of everyday life. Your friends might not be receptive to feedback or could get defensive about the phone glued to their hand. As with any other unhealthy behavior, you can explain to your friends that you’re only looking out for them. Try gently suggesting that you both keep your phones off the table during mealtimes. Going technology-free with someone else, even for a short period of time, can be a grounding and rewarding experience.
There’s a difference between unhealthy phone habits and serious addiction to technology. If the thought of putting your phone aside for an hour fills you with dread, maybe it’s time to check in with yourself about the fears you associate with being disconnected from your phone. Is it just FOMO, or is there something more serious at hand? Starting the conversation about cell phone habits—both with yourself and with others—is a crucial step forward in responsibly and respectfully using technology.