I have an addiction.
I hate that I have it.
There are days when I succumb to this addiction for hours at a time and it leaves me feeling utterly worthless.
It takes me away from my family and I miss important moments in their lives.
This addiction can be crippling, even though it should be easy to overcome.
As I’ve gotten older, it has only gotten harder to avoid, and chances are high that someone in your direct family is fighting this same addiction.
How to get my attention
Growing up, there were really only three ways to get my attention. If you wanted to play, you had to write a letter (not very realistic), stop by the house and awkwardly stand on the porch hoping we were home and heard the doorbell, or call our home phone.
The actual means of directing my attention to you involved a doorbell, a phone ringing throughout the whole house, and/or a family member yelling my name on your behalf, letting everyone in the house know that you were trying to talk to me.
If we weren’t home, you either had to come back later or leave a voicemail on our answering machine (again, everyone in the house could hear that answering machine and who the message was for).
Our response could take minutes, or it could take days, and that was okay.
Cell phones became more affordable when I was in middle school. I was in 8th grade when I got my first cell phone. It was a flip phone that could really only make around 10 minutes of calls a month and was only to be used for emergencies.
I felt so cool.
My parents were the only people with the number, so if you wanted to contact me, the steps to reach me were still the same as above.
As 9th grade rolled around, my life changed forever.
I got one of the first color-screen cell phones. This thing was sweet! Now my phone icons and the Snake game were different colors. How cool!
I still couldn’t make a lot of calls, but I could send text messages. At the time, we were billed by each message sent and received.
Now, other friends had phones. I had their number and they had mine. No shared line for my parents and siblings to monitor. No more waiting for hours to hear back from each other.
This was the magical time when we all learned that the only explanation for you not answering my text within 1 minute was that you were either ignoring my text or you had died, because we all knew that your phone was attached to you at all times.
My parents also had a tough time keeping my text message numbers below the threshold of sending us into bankruptcy.
During high school, most of the phone technology available to me didn’t change much. It was still phone calls and texts going back and forth between friends. The big advancement was that you could now send pictures as well as unlimited text message plans, which saved my parents a ton of money, because I had a problem.
One day during my senior year, my dad called me into the family room and said, “we need to talk.”
He had (and still has) this specific tone of voice that conveys his disappointment, confusion, and a warning of trouble. He used this voice when he called me to the family room.
“I just can’t wrap my head around this. Can you explain to me how and why you would ever need to send this many text messages in a single month?”
He pointed to the cell phone bill and the messages associated with my number.
Total messages sent/received:
Part of me was proud. That was an impressive number and more than I had ever heard amongst any of my friends.
Then my dad started breaking down the math.
“You send or receive 518 messages every single day.”
“Somehow, you are sending or receiving 21.6 messages every hour.”
“Take away the average of 6 hours of sleep you get per day and that becomes almost 29 messages per hour.”
“You are sending or receiving 1 message every 2 minutes of every waking hour of the day.”
“How are you doing this while still being at basketball practices and games, paying attention in class, keeping up with homework, and any other activities that you wouldn’t be physically capable of having a phone in your hand?”
“Maybe a more important question is, Why are you doing this?”
His calm during this conversation unsettled me.
“I dunno,” I muttered, “I just have lots of good friends and we text each other.”
My dad let me know that things had to change. I was addicted to something he couldn’t quite put into words.
The numbers went down a bit over the subsequent months, but not by much.
Keep in mind that Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, online gaming, and any other now-popular apps either didn’t exist or weren’t accessible to me on a phone. I can’t imagine what my high school life would’ve been like with those in the palm of my hand.
Growing out of it
After my senior year, I served a church mission. The first three months of this mission were spent in the Mission Training Center (MTC). My life was simplified dramatically. Now, the only way you could contact me was through letters or a weekly email.
No text messages. No phone calls.
For the first several weeks, while walking across the MTC grounds or while sitting in classes, I could feel my phone was buzzing in my pocket with a new message. I’d reach into my pocket just to be reminded that no phone was there, and this phantom feeling was my body creating these imaginary sensations.
Once I left the MTC, I didn’t have these false vibrations anymore. I left the MTC and went to Russia. Our companionship had a cell phone, but it was mostly just used for calls (texting in a foreign language such as Russian proved difficult). The conversations were public in that you or your companion always knew for what the phone was being used.
Life went back to being more like my middle school phone, much simpler and more manageable.
Phone technology exploded while I was on my mission. Smart phones became more prevalent and more affordable. My first phone after getting home from the mission had access to the internet, YouTube, and the ESPN app.
I got a job and could now afford to pay for my phone plan. I was committed to sticking as close to my mission phone behavior as possible.
I didn’t send many texts and preferred calling people. In fact, Caitlin and I rarely sent text messages throughout our dating life. Even now, after being married for almost 10 years, we still call each other about as much as we text one another.
Well, the phones got smarter. The apps got more and more useful/entertaining/awesome.
The consequence: My addiction reared its ugly head once more.
Your phone notifications are designed to control your attention. The consequence of that is an incredibly addictive feedback loop.
No matter what you may be doing at any given time, a notification is a little, “Hey… There’s something here and you may want to shift your attention over here… for the next 3 hours…”
A notification means someone thinks you’re important enough to want to get your attention. It’s flattering. It’s positive reinforcement that something you did was considered noteworthy to someone else. It means your attention, opinions, or thought are wanted by another person.
That’s a good thing, right?
My notifications come in these forms:
Phone calls, text messages, emails, calendar reminders, and app-specific notifications (think a Facebook ‘like’ notification, budget alert, etc.).
I send and receive WAAAAAY fewer text messages than I did when I was in high school, but what about these notifications?
I’ve run a number of experiments on myself over the past few years focused on my cell phone and the notifications I receive.
I set out to document every notification I received across three days. I would mark what kind of notification it was (text, call, email, calendar, app).
Side note: The first time I ran this experiment, I had just started a new job, so I wasn’t getting a heavy amount of internal or external emails related to work.
Two years ago, tallying texts, emails, phone calls, and social, my average number of notifications per day was 288.
That amounts to 1 every 5 minutes of a 24-hour day. I was getting about 7 hours of sleep per night at the time, so that, translated into notifications per hour awake equals 1 every 3½ minutes. Close to my text message problem numbers.
Now, think about the habit-forming behaviors this instills in my brain. If I am used to having a new email/text/call/calendar/app notification every 31/2 minutes, what do you think happens after, I don’t know… 5 minutes have passed?
Just like the Pavlov’s dog experiment, every 31/2 minutes I tap my phone to see if I may have missed the phone light up or the buzz when a new message came through.
I resolved to fix this.
Two Years Later
Immediately following that little experiment, I went through a bunch of the personal emails I was receiving from brands I liked or from whom I had purchased something, plus some others I didn’t even realize I was following. I unsubscribed from all of these lists.
I unsubscribed from several other email lists connected to my work email.
I disabled social media notifications like Facebook and LinkedIn (the only two I was on at the time).
Two years after the initial experiment, I remembered what I had done and wanted to see if I had made any progress.
The 3-day average of notifications: 85.
1 every 12 minutes (of waking hours). Not bad!
Today, I’m somewhere in the middle, however, it’s not just notifications that are huge time wastes for me. The constant available content from video streaming services like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, Disney +, YouTube, and others make it so easy to find a distraction. Not to mention scrolling through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the ESPN app.
Some content could be considered useful. How-to videos, learning new skills related to work, or online workouts can be useful. But, there are days where I spend hours watching a sporting event. Hours watching tennis and golf highlights I’ve seen 10 times on YouTube (Federer is soooo cool!!!). Hours scrolling through social media feeds. None of those are a result of a notification.
And it’s not just the phone. Screen time in general dominates my life. I tallied up the screens in our home:
4 Cell phones (2 active, 2 old phones the kids use to play games)
1 Video game console
12 screens scattered throughout the house and accessible at almost any time.
I spend 8 hours a day working on a computer monitor. I come home and write some pages to something I’m working on or a blog post. I’m in front of screens all day, every day.
Over the past decade, much of the human experience has transitioned from the physical world to the digital world. More and more of our reality is only accessible through a screen. More time is spent staring at a phone, computer, or TV, including the writing and reading of this post.
Less time is spent reading physical books. Less time is spent looking into my wife’s and my children’s eyes. Less time is spent working on my health or noticing the beautiful things and people around me.
I can’t help but think that our kids and their developing brains are not suited or capable of handling this kind of constant stimulation and connection without consequences. Hell, my brain isn’t suited or capable apparently.
I am starting to see the effects with my young kids when they are asked to put down the tablet or turn off the TV. I see the effects with teenage family members.
I have had several, yes, several friends and acquaintances whose marriages have been ruined by screen addictions even worse than mine as the husbands spend their days playing video games. They refuse to get a job. They forget to help out around the house or show attention to their spouse because they are gaming.
I hate seeing it happen with friends. I had seeing the dependence on screens in myself.
I justify it with,
“It could be worse!”
“It’s not porn!”
“It’s not drugs/alcohol/gambling… blah, blah, blah…”
It’s still an addiction.
Don’t let it happen to you.
Don’t let it happen to me.
Oh, and my diet starts tomorrow.
New Goals and Controls
Here are a few things I am trying out in an attempt to cut down on my screen time (and I welcome any others you may have to offer).
- Silence is bliss
I set all phone notifications to silent. This does not mean vibrate, this means silent. I can somehow hear that vibration noise from across the neighborhood, so vibrate doesn’t quite cut it for me. This helps me forget about it a bit so that I’m not listening or feeling for that vibration from a call or text.
- Specific hours of use
I’m setting aside blocks of hours where my phone is not in my pocket, or even near me. I’m leaving it in the kitchen while I am working somewhere else.
This strategy is applied to all screens, including the computer screen I’m staring at right now.
I have turned off the email notification at work and I check my emails during specific times of the day. I may not have any emails when I check, or I may have 20, but I have designated specific hours of the day to read and respond to emails. This helps me focus on the projects I need to get done without my attention being pulled off to other things while I’m in the middle of the creative flow.
My family needs me… and so does yours
Given the worldwide circumstances, my kids experience school through online learning now. Most of their school day they spend immersed in online learning through a screen. They take a break and want to play on the iPad. Then, they want to watch a movie, so they can stay quiet during Claire’s nap time.
Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to move them away from the screen and into sports, friends, the yard, the mountains, and the physical world.
My three kids have taken up playing catch with baseball gloves. They have a golden retriever puppy to wrestle and play fetch. They like running, riding bikes, and building nests for baby birds.
They like playing with their dad.
They don’t need me buried in my phone screen.
They don’t need me watching YouTube videos.
They don’t need me scrolling through my Facebook feed.
There is a time for all this, but it’s not while my family needs me present.
Think of the children!
If you have kids with cell phones, please think about this post. I know from experience that it is sooo much easier to just plop them in front of a TV or iPad to keep them entertained when I’m exhausted or want to browse my own phone.
We’ve had to break our kids from this pattern. We’ve caught them a few times sneaking the iPad or old phones away to play games in a corner of the house. They fight over who gets to use the iPad constantly. They shriek that it’s not fair and they really really really want to play games rather than go outside.
If you are the parent to a child that has his or her own phone, all I’m asking is to be careful. They have almost infinitely more access to almost infinitely more content (good and bad). With quarantines, this only becomes more of a problem.
The future is only moving more and more away from physical reality toward a more virtual experience.
I hope I can resist the addiction.
Maybe I’m too old fashioned.
If any of you are succeeding with this, please let me know how you’re doing it.
Sorry for the downer post, but maybe you or someone you know could use it.
PS – Is now a bad time to ask you to subscribe to this blog?