Silver Disco Daps

On breaking up with my phone…

It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Whether it’s been a healthy relationship is another thing. But my iPhone has been a prominent feature of my life for 10 years now.

To put that into perspective, in my early twenties I entered into a marriage that lasted two years. My longest relationship with a man lasted three (long, mindfuck-filled) years.

My love affair with the phone (which, for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to call Dave) has outlasted any I’ve had with a man. But has it been any less dysfunctional than the very worst ones?

I doubt it.

But there’s a reason I’ve clung so tightly to Dave, allowing him to inch further and further into my life. Until suddenly, there he was, sleeping next to me every night. The first thing I saw when I awoke in the morning. The thing I turned to for comfort when the dreaded 3am insomnia struck.

Because – and this feels as silly to write as it must be to read – I’ve been able to rely on Dave.

I mean, I’ve yet to meet a man that can answer any random question that occurs to me within seconds. A man that can summon up a taxi in a matter of minutes, or order a pizza without me even having to open my mouth. One that does my grocery shopping without asking me what I need, reads books aloud to me at bedtime, books the perfect holiday and gives me the lowdown on the best restaurant in any given neighbourhood on far-flung shores.

Or a man that can direct me accurately to any destination, correctly identify that Prince B-side they’re playing on the radio or conjure up a recipe for that crayfish that’s about to go out of date.

Equally, I’ve never met a man that can consistently entertain me in a variety of scenarios (in the car, on long walks, in airports, on train journeys, and surreptitiously during boring phone conferences), no matter what my mood. Or one that can time my increasingly lame running efforts to the nearest nano-second and alert me when my favourite band is in town. That sends flowers to my nearest and dearest and captures precious memories in pixels before uploading them for all of my friends to see. That never cheats or expects me to share him (that fingerprint recognition technology means Dave has only ever been mine).

I mean, if YOU have met this man (or woman) – congratulations. Great work. Because I haven’t.

Is it any wonder Dave became such an important part of my life?

The thing is, like all the most damaging co-dependent relationships, Dave’s very raison d’être is to become – and remain – indispensable. Smartphones, and the apps that keep us glued to them, are designed to be addictive, to keep us going back to them time and again, even when our time would be better spent living in the real world.

This dawned upon me when I read the brilliant ‘How to break up with your phone’, by award-winning journalist Catherine Price.

What led me to the book was a nagging feeling that my relationship with Dave had gone far beyond what I would consider healthy.

Have you ever picked up your phone, to find yourself aimlessly scrolling through social media apps half an hour later, unsure of why you picked it up in the first place and wondering where the time has gone?

I was finding myself in this situation regularly. For regularly, read several times a day.

I’d mutter about the people obscuring my view at festivals and gigs with their video and selfie taking, before realising I was just as bad – if not much, much worse.

I just had this uneasy, unrelenting, sense that I was too dependent on Dave.

I can pinpoint the moment it struck me. Back in 2016 I was on a residential creative writing course where there was no 3G or WiFi, and we were required to lock our phones away for a whole FIVE DAYS. I’d liked the concept, but when it came to shutting Dave away in a desk drawer I immediately felt anxious, and on edge. Everybody that mattered had an emergency number for me, so it wasn’t rooted in any practical consideration.

It took two days before that low-level anxiety turned into a feeling of freedom, which took me by total surprise. I looked up and found myself cooking in a group and loving it, having deep and meaningful conversations with total strangers, getting lost in books of poetry, focusing on writing tasks in a way I simply hadn’t done for years. It felt like I could breathe again. I remembered life before my phone. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. When life wasn’t about telling the world what a good time you were having – it was about enjoying the good times. I made friends on that course I’m privileged to call close friends today.

Obviously, I spent all of the train journey home furiously texting friends, overdosing on Twitter and turbo-scrolling through Insta to see what I’d missed.

Old habits die hard, I guess.

Then one night last week I put my phone down and picked up the aforementioned book. And it scared me. I’d put off reading it, much like I used to put off Allen Carr’s ‘How to give up smoking’ – like with any addiction, I had to be ready to read it I suppose.

I knew I was finally ready, and I devoured it in one sitting.

I read about how apps are designed to hook you in. How notifications are designed to give you a little surge of dopamine (yes, there’s a scientific reason why we chase those likes and comments). And with every page turn, I grew more and more perturbed.

A quiz at the beginning revealed I was dangerously addicted to my smartphone. And the section on children and what phones do to their pliable little brains terrified me even more.

My son James, aged 11, has had an iPhone since he was 10. Most of his friends had one, so I relented. Previously an avid reader, he now prefers scrolling through football news sites, chatting to his friends on Snapchat and playing football games on his iPhone. I’ve found myself banning the phone at dinner times and sometimes practically begging him to talk to me about his day. The final straw came when he started texting me from his bedroom.

I knew something had to change. But how? How do you break up with your phone when it’s been such a fixture in your life for so long?

Through gradual withdrawal, the book said. Cold turkey just doesn’t work.

It recommends monitoring your phone use to realise how much you use it, and gradually reducing your dependency on it.

Start leaving it on silent. Keep it out of your bedroom overnight. Don’t reply to texts immediately unless they’re urgent. Delete your favourite social media apps.

It all made sense, but I had no idea if I could bring myself to take these steps, or how I’d manage. And there, ladies and gentlemen, speaks a true addict.

But I knew I needed to address my unhealthy relationship with my phone, and set a good example if I wanted my son to do the same.

So I downloaded two apps the author recommends – ScreenTime, which allows parents to set daily limits on phone usage (while still allowing phone calls and texts outside of these times) and Moment, which helps you monitor and limit your own usage.

Imagine my horror when I realised that in the average day, I pick up my phone almost one hundred times, spending an average of 3.5 hours a day glued to it.

That’s over 24 hours every week. That’s a WHOLE DAY I’m losing every week, scrolling through pictures of friends’ kids and cute cat memes. That works out as 53 days a year. And yes, I had to use my phone calculator to work that out.

A hard habit to break indeed.

But one I’m now determined to do something about. My phone is integral to my work as a PR consultant and business owner – obviously I don’t want to miss any vital calls or emails, ever. And keeping up with social media is important – it’s part of my job, of the world I operate in.

But if I’m being honest, the truly important stuff accounts for a fractionof my daily phone use. Most of it is time squandered, time when I could be doing much more interesting, creative, enjoyable stuff.

“Err why are you doing this mum?” James moaned, Kevin the teenager style, when I explained the new daily limits we’d have on our phones. But when I explained some of the things I’d learned about how phones change the way our brains work, making us less able to focus and make new memories, he seemed to understand.

When I explained how he can undertake certain tasks (go to the shop, clean your room, finish your homework) to be rewarded with bonus screen time, his eyes lit up. There’s nothing like brazen bribery in the parenting toolkit, I continue to find.

Once I’d set up the apps, I took the plunge and deleted Facebook, the most time-hungry app I own (or does it own me? Existential question klaxon) from my phone, and decided I’d work my way up to Twitter and Instagram. Baby steps eh?

And that’s how, on a Friday night, we started the process of redefining our relationship with our phones.

I write this less than 24 hours later, so it’s early days yet. But I wanted to document our experience so far as motivation to keep going. And quite frankly, because I’ve bought myself the time to sit and actually write,one of the things I love most in the world.

So how has day one been?

A revelation. But I’m wary of speaking too soon. So let’s say, interesting.

When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was reach for my phone on my bedside table. Old habits, again. But instead of scrolling for 20 minutes before panicking I was going to be late for something, as I do most mornings, I realised there was very little to scroll through. I avoided opening Twitter and any news apps and decided to head to my local Parkrun. It’s been months since I last did one with James, but his football match had been called off, so I decided to capitalise on the opportunity to start the day on an endorphin high.

Obviously I launched Strava to record my run time (because no run has happened unless it’s been Strava-ed, everybodyknows that), and Spotify for some motivational tunes, but the phone stayed in my pocket for the whole run. That may sound reasonable enough, but I have been known to send WhatsApps about work while doing that very same Saturday morning run.

Halfway around, James took his headphones out so I followed suit and we talked for the rest of the run. That is, until he found some inner strength with 500 metres to go and whizzed ahead of me in a hare and the tortoise style slo-mo sequence, finishing a full minute ahead of me. When I finally made the finish line, there he was, beaming and sweating profusely.  A few minutes before he’d summoned up this superhuman power spurt, he’d groaned “WHY ARE WE DOING THIS AGAIN MUM?”. That boy, honestly.

After handing in our chips, we headed for a post-run Starbucks, our traditional treat. I took my phone out to take a selfie of us sweating and red-faced, but – WTF – I didn’t post it anywhere. I didn’t feel the need to.

That joke about a run not counting unless you’d recorded in on Strava and then posted it on Facebook made me smile as we enjoyed our drinks. This one was going nowhere except our memories.  And my quivering legs/sweaty scalp/thumping heart proved it definitely HAD happened.

After a quick supermarket dash we got home and I immediately put my phone on charge in my bedroom.

Usually it would be in my jeans pocket or in view wherever I was – the sofa, next to the hob while I cooked, behind me on the laundry basket in the bath. Just in case. I’d feel nervous if I couldn’t see it. Talk about needy, huh?

But the book recommends leaving the phone in another room while you get used to checking it less, so I heeded the advice.

Predictably, I didn’t leave it alone completely, but just having it another room made a real difference. I checked it whenever I went to the toilet, but if I wanted to Google something I had to go to the gargantuan effort of firing up my laptop instead.

Having to go to that bother meant I didn’t randomly Google every single thought that popped into my head (easy chicken recipe, cafetiere coffee/water ratio, Thomas Cromwell to name but a few).

So what did I do with the time I’d usually spend scrolling aimlessly?

I cooked a Mexican burrito lunch the boy devoured while we chatted about school and running.

After lunch, while he was engrossed in the football, I cwtched up next to him on the sofa and read all of the Guardian and its various supplements, along with an old copy of the New Yorker I’d been meaning to read for ages. At half time I tickled James while he laughed like a steam train – the first time I’ve done that since he was a toddler I think. There I was, enjoying the sound of my boy laughing, without feeling the need to snap, record or share it.

We did a crossword in the Week Junior together, finishing it in record time.

Then I had a long, relaxing bath.

On one “toilet break” (this one may have been made up) I replied to a few friends I hadn’t replied to for a few days, explaining my experiment as the reason for the delay in texting back.

As for James, his response to his new screen restrictions has surprised me.

He wasn’t that keen when I explained I’d be limiting his daily phone time. But today he was happy to do some tasks to earn more time, including going to the corner shop – even doing Parkrun which he wasn’t initially overly enthused about but earned him a bonus 15 minutes. Somebody call Esther Rantzen (80s reference klaxon)!

He begged for some extra time to watch Cardiff City play Chelsea on a live football streaming app and I demurred, as it wasn’t on TV.

But he understood that would be his daily limit used up. And then he did something that surprised me – he asked to go to the park with his friends. That’s not something he would typically ask to do on a weekend, especially after vigorous exercise (he’s a big fan of a lounge around in his fluffy robe after any physical exertion. The apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree…) and I happily waved him off.

He’s still there, filling his lungs, socialising, kicking a ball around with his mates. It feels like the actual NINETEEN EIGHTIES.

And while he’s been gone, I’ve written this.

So how was day one of the gradual break-up, for me, honestly?

Well, I read a fascinating (and long) article about Nicaraguan politics the old me would have skim read or put down halfway through had Dave been on hand to distract me.

I learned to make good cafetiere coffee. It sounds ridiculous, but having owned a cafetiere for years, I’d never bothered to master the art, preferring the convenience of instant granules or Nespresso pods.

These are small things, and baby steps, but I feel like I’ve achieved stuff today.

I’ve had a lovely day with the boy and enjoyed some bonding Mam-Son stuff.

I’ve run 5K, mindfully.

I’ve learned some new stuff, and life skills.

I’ve picked my phone up 28 times and spent 38 minutes on it. A serious reduction. Yet, the irony of using an app on my phone to tell me that isn’t lost on me.

It seems Dave has ways of making me stick around.

But what day one has taught me, is that living in the real world a bit more, and in the digital one a little less, is easier than I thought it would be. That perhaps real connection happens when you’re disconnected.

Of course, ingrained habits are impossible to break overnight. Which is why all that nonsense about digital detox is as ridiculous as crash diets, to me. For me, it’s about being mindful about how I use my phone, when and why, and making small changes gradually.

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified, kept thinking I could never live without you by my side” keeps playing in my head.

See, Dave is more like a bad boyfriend than I’d realised.

Now to keep it up. And to get him out of my bedroom….

2 responses to “On breaking up with my phone…”

  1. Sadly (and ashamedly), I used my phone to read this. Taking myself to the naughty step…….

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Sara. As the only apps I use are WhatsApp and LinkedIn I totally understand the freedom you felt and the privacy of making memories with James. Well done and long may it continue.
    I am real proud of you both
    Mam xx

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Hello. I’m Sara. This site is home to my writing for the Western Mail, a newspaper kind enough to publish my internal ramblechats. In 2022 I was named Wales Media Awards Columnist of The Year for this column. Madness. You’ll find me spaffing opinions on feminism, inequality, festivals, tech, art and whatever else pops into my head at 3am the day before deadline. There’s also bonus content, when the muse takes me (WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? I DIDN’T ORDER THIS CAB! Etc…).

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