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Most Phone Use is a Tragic Loss of Life

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I don’t know if people say this anymore, but it was common in the 1990s to say “smoking one cigarette takes ten minutes off your life.”

It obviously doesn’t work like that exactly, but it may not be total nonsense — this study says the loss of life comes to about eleven minutes, by adding up all known increased health risks and their life-expectancy differences, and dividing by the average number of cigarettes smoked by daily smokers. Smoking X cigarettes shortens a life, on average, by XY minutes. Fair enough.

Most of my friends and family don’t know this, but during my early twenties I smoked daily, and I thought about that 10-minute figure a lot. There were five customary cigarettes in my daily routine while I attended school: the waiting for the bus smoke, the arriving at school smoke, the mid-morning smoke, the after lunch smoke, and the waiting for the bus home smoke. There would be at least one other cigarette every day, which adds up to about an hour of life sacrificed per day to this ritual behavior, according to the formula. That’s about three hours lost per pack, and a day and a half per carton.

Since I wasted at least as much time on bad television and video games, I reasoned that this cost was bad but not unacceptable, especially because I didn’t love smoking enough to believe I’d do it forever. It had some benefits too: I made friends on the various designated smoking pads at work and school, I had a lovely outdoor respite from the loudness of parties and bars, and I ate less because a cigarette punctuates a meal like a dessert could only dream.

Still lighting up

In the end though, my intuition won out — despite any rational justifications, smoking was gross and expensive and obviously very bad for you, and I quit.

About twenty years later — last week — I found myself sitting at my kitchen table, mechanically upvoting and downvoting hot takes on Reddit when I realized I had been aimlessly thumbing my phone for at least twenty minutes. I was vaguely aware that I had not yet done the thing that caused me to reach for my phone in the first place, and could no longer remember what it was.

Even though I get caught up like that all the time, the nihilism of that particular twenty minutes really got to me. It was such a nothing thing to do. I said aloud what I was thinking: “That… was a total loss.”

Basically I had just aged myself by twenty minutes. Two virtual cigarettes, and not even a fading buzz to show for it. I learned nothing, gained nothing, made no friends, impacted the world not at all, did not improve my mood or my capacity to do anything useful. It was marginally enjoyable on some reptile-brain level, sure, but its ultimate result was only to bring me nearer to death. Using my phone like that was pure loss of life — like smoking, except without the benefits.

A thing people do, circa 2023

This is the 1950s of the smartphone era

I wish I could say I don’t sacrifice much of my life in that way, but I do. And much more of it than I ever smoked away. You might describe it as a deadly addiction, if it wasn’t so normal.

This smoking analogy might seem a bit cheeky. It might be, but I can’t see quite what the difference is. Smoking causes horrible cancers, and perhaps frivolous phone use only wastes your time, but I’m not quite sure what the difference is when you average it all out. It’s an irrational, dopaminergic ritual that brings you closer to inevitable sickness, old age, and death. At least it doesn’t smell.

Of course, not everyone uses their phone like I do. I’m sure some people use their phones scrupulously, as a tool and not a toy, such that little of their screen time has no redeeming value. These people are the “non-smokers” of the smartphone-using population, and therefore do not fit into the analogy.

However, it’s still the 1950s when it comes to smartphones. Most of us still smoke with abandon, as though it’s a neutral activity, on the streetcorner, in the library, at our workstations, at our breakfast tables, on the toilet, in bed. Long-term studies demonstrating that this common pleasure is killing us may still be decades away, even if we already kind of know.

Early adopters

The phone/smoking analogy, like all analogies, works in some places and not in others. Wasting time is not quite the same as shortening your life span due to increased disease risk of deadly disease (assuming phones don’t also do that). Smoking also makes your health worse all along the way to your death (although I’d bet phone abuse does too). Either way, I don’t think it’s untrue to say that most smartphone use is a regrettable loss of life for the person doing it.

If the main reason not to smoke is to protect, in aggregate, thousands of our God-given ten-minuteses — which amounts to years — of being alive, we should just as strenuously avoid other vices that incur comparable costs, and should consider the resulting loss of life to be just as tragic.

The Tradeoff

I’m not trying to make a moral appeal, only a practical one. It doesn’t necessarily follow that frivolous phone use is bad or wrong. It’s unwise, and we already know that it’s unwise. But perhaps it is as unwise as smoking. Perhaps indulging the urge to browse Reddit after checking your email is just as reckless and self-destructive as lighting up a Marlboro 100 after breakfast, and will one day be seen with all the same revulsion and taboo.

Only you know how resonant this proposition is for you. If you lose ten, twenty, or thirty minutes to frivolous phone use on a multiple-times-daily basis (I sure do), it might make sense to regard it as belonging to a much higher stratum of concern than we tend to assume. Instead of grouping it with I-probably-shouldn’t-but-who-cares sorts of behaviors, like rewatching barely-worthwhile TV shows or kicking off your shoes without untying them, perhaps it belongs with possibly-catastrophic vices like daily deep-fried lunch, road raging, or smoking.

A thing people do, circa 1948

I don’t know if I’m way off the bullseye here or finally zeroing in on it. Let me know what you think. It presumably depends on how you use your own phone, but also on what you witness others doing around you. Is the smoking comparison unwarranted?

Whether or not you feel this comparison is too glib or reductive, or otherwise doesn’t feel right, each of us will ultimately either confront or avoid the question at the heart of it: given the way that you use your phone, what really is being gained, what really is being lost, and will you be happy having made the exchange?



Reading the comments inspired me to begin a new experiment. Basically I’m leaving my phone in a holder on my kitchen wall, and completely renouncing the scrolling of bottomless content feeds (think Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, etc.) for the duration of Lent.

Go to the experiment page

Photos by Rob Hampson, Steven Lasry, Lewis Hine

Rachel February 22, 2023 at 4:37 pm

YES!!! I’ve been feeling this way about my phone for awhile now-what a time suck! And yet-it’s a habit I’m having a hard time kicking and find myself mindlessly reaching for it multiple times throughout the day, usually for no reason at all. So thanks for the reminder to stay the course and keep trying. I’m excited to see what I can accomplish or what hobbies I can finally enjoy if I just give myself back that time!

Thanks for your observations and insights!

David Cain February 22, 2023 at 8:37 pm

One thing I’ve done is put a little phone holder on my kitchen wall — basically just a cardboard sleeve I can stick it in. When I notice I keep using my phone, I go put it over there. It makes a big difference, because I have to get up to use it, which hints at how little I truly value using it most of the time.

Daniela February 26, 2023 at 4:05 pm

I’ve been feeling this way too. I try to put my phone in a different room, which doesn’t always work. Yesterday morning I went for a long walk to a favourite cafe and left my phone at home. I read my book at the cafe instead. It was uncomfortable at first but ultimately much more satisfying. I was much more focused on my tasks later, which I realise now was not a coincidence.

Pipsterate February 22, 2023 at 5:07 pm

I don’t use my phone all that often, but I think this is true of the internet in general. I was stuck somewhere without internet for 2 weeks, and during that time I finished literally as many books as I usually do in a year.

Ironically enough, I actually found cigarettes and alcohol, as well as a few more unsavory things, quite easy to kick, possibly due to the cultural views I was raised with. But reddit? Twitter? Nobody prepared me for those demons.

kiwano February 22, 2023 at 5:44 pm

Entirely agreed on the internet use in general. I loathe using my phone as anything other than a tool, and buy new phones infrequently so that I don’t have to spend as much time deleting all the factory-installed attention-sinks — and then I just waste my life doing roughly the same nonsense on my laptop that other people do on their phones. Roughly because over the years I’ve either deliberately locked myself out of, or deleted my various social media accounts, and yet even the slightly less finely tuned distraction machines still manage to waste hours of every day that I have unfettered access to my laptop (which is most days). On that note, I think I’m going to do something not involving my laptop now (or at least I’m going to try :P )

Pipsterate February 22, 2023 at 5:49 pm

Good luck! Though if all goes well, you won’t be reading this for a while.

Joy February 23, 2023 at 9:21 pm

Yes! I find the same. I am very disciplined about my phone. But I’m working on my laptop all day and reddit is only a tab away…

For me the best solution seems to be make plans and go outside. If I’m not at home I don’t miss it. Unfortunately I also don’t get paid!

David Cain February 22, 2023 at 8:36 pm

Agreed. Cigarettes and alcohol have the advantage of having fairly obvious short-term downsides (expense, smell, feeling lousy). The internet is ubiquitous and basically has to be engaged with on some level. Taking hard breaks from it though (whether it’s a day, a week, or even just a few hours offline) is possible and can at least show you what happens on the other side.

Jen M February 24, 2023 at 9:18 pm

So true. I personally find myself mindlessly watch seasons of shows on Netflix is my trap. But I was so very startled when, on Family Day, our two adult children came to visit us, a wonderful thing, I witnessed something incomprehensible. 3 of the 4 people at the dining room table were heads down on their phones. So sad.

Brady February 22, 2023 at 9:11 pm

My gut feeling is the comparison is indeed a bit reductive. As much as I despise the feeling that I’m addicted to this silly device, browsing repeated dopamine hits instead of having meaningful real world experiences, I’m not sure it’s so black and white ‘bad for you’. My parents would watch the news and a show every night at 6pm. That’s an hour of their waking day spent at the TV that I don’t spend. (and we know how you feel about the news ;) ) That said, unlike the 6pm TV, the phone is certainly more insidious – with us everywhere we go to short circuit out brain at a moment’s boredom. I do enjoy Reddit, but I do notice the addictive properties when I’ve gone too long. Ack I don’t know!!

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:08 am

Clearly there are benefits mixed in with the harms, which makes it tricky. I would say that is also true of smoking. If a couple spent an hour smoking a few cigarettes on the porch every evening, which helped them bond and reflect and grow closer, it might actually be a net benefit.

I think each of us has to answer for ourselves the question of the nature and consequences of our use.

Tamara February 23, 2023 at 2:28 am

Oh lord yes. Nail on head.
I’m appalled when I get the kind little reminder “your internet use has gone DOWN by 20% to 4.3 hours a DAY”…
It’s complicated because most of my work is online, on zoom, and in online groups. But still.. Aaaarrrggghhh. You are right.
I just spent about 20 minutes – yikes, time does slip by under screen hypnosis – on reading and responding to you. Did I change the world, or myself? We will see.

Ann February 23, 2023 at 2:30 am

I agree and I don’t. I’m on my phone a lot. I respond to questions/comments about our family business. I manage 4 active email accounts. I watch no news programs, so learn some of the breaking stories online. I’m never on it when with friends or interacting with family. I don’t look at Redit or twitter or tiktok ever. Do I believe I’m on it too much? Yes, I do. But “wasting time” isn’t always negative. Constant productivity has its downsides. But in general I value connectivity over distance. Online shopping, use of ATMs, door dash, self checkout – all lessen our interaction with other humans. I see an erosion of community. So I make choices about all of that – including phone use. But for me it’s more focused on human connection than time wasting.

Maciej February 23, 2023 at 6:23 am

It feels as if you consider the opposite of wasting time to be productivity. I think the opposite of wasting time is being actually present.
Being “here and now”. Because wasting time on phone, computer, TV or whatever is being absent from reality of now.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:12 am

I agree constant productivity has its downsides, although too much productivity is not a problem I’ve ever experienced (though I believe it exists). But during my downtime I think I am better off reading a book or going for a walk than cruising Twitter. I believe one of those things is a waste of time and the others aren’t, even though none are “productive” exactly.

Stephen February 23, 2023 at 2:40 am

I think a missing thing here is, what would you do with that time, REALLY? If your phone vanished and you had an extra hour or two in the day… would you read an improving book, or sit under a tree, or go for a run? And of the things you would do, in what way specifically are they better than using your phone? Some activities probably would yield long term results, others might as frivolous or even more.

I think it’s all bit complicated. I have more time on my hands than I used to, and I thought I would be SO PRODUCTIVE. But I’m not. And I think that’s because since I have so much time, I have no sense of urgency any more. There’s always tomorrow. And I don’t seem to be able to make myself do all the worthy things, the aspirational Better Me things, that I could (though I do manage some).

I come back to: if the phone vanished, what would happen to the liberated time? Maybe fooling around with your phone is as valid as the things that would replace fooling around with your phone. Certainly without a plan and commitment to other things, you might as have your phone.

The one thing I would say which does bother me about online time and phone time: there’s a kind of flow state, but it’s not a GOOD flow state. It’s absorbing, but there isn’t a good feeling afterwards, or even during. And that’s bad. Loafing and idling are fine to me because it is enjoyable to do nothing. But the phone feels like a bad kind of nothing compared to (eg) lying on the sofa day dreaming.

Neil Scott February 23, 2023 at 3:02 am

I agree with much of this, particularly the idea that idling is good but phone-idling feels bad.

Re: what you would do otherwise. I sometimes like to imagine reverse engineering life — going from the point of my death (hopefully not anytime soon, but who knows) and trying to work out what I would’ve liked to have done. I don’t think I mind using the phone, but I would have wanted to do so in a more intentional way rather than habitual scrolling and reacting.

Liesl February 23, 2023 at 6:50 am

I think that occasionally doing “nothing” is a good thing! Give your brain a break sometimes, right? Lie on the couch, daydream, stare into space for half an hour. Sometimes that’s good, and I certainly think it’s a better kind of doing nothing than scrolling Twitter or Reddit or (in my case) Pinterest. And it may not be wasted—you might come up with an idea or philosophy that will change your life. The point is, you never know what will become of “doing nothing,” but it’s marginally better than “doing nothing” on your phone.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:20 am

I agree and I think that’s an important distinction. Doing nothing on your phone isn’t really doing nothing, it’s engaging in electronic entertainment.

Pam February 23, 2023 at 8:12 am

This is a good exercise. Trying to remember what I did with idle time before I had a phone that would connect to the internet. In college, my phone could text and take low-quality pictures, but that was it.

This is going to sound made-up but it’s not. In college, my friends and I entertained ourselves by indulging in childhood activities like coloring, playing with play dough and blowing bubbles. One sunny day on campus, I watched a group of students get out 2 ropes and jump double dutch and I have never been more fascinated! We went on a lot of walks and played at local parks.We held a weekly Writer’s Circle where we all shared stories we had been working on.

We would all gather around someone’s computer if we wanted to watch something funny on a website or catch up on social media drama. We also watched a lot of movies and TV shows. I rented a lot of DVD’s in those days from Blockbuster and RedBox. I’m sure I spent plenty of idle time on my laptop.

And we were all voracious readers. Always in the middle of several books.

The biggest difference between then and now is the cafeteria experience. This is the only difference that actually breaks my heart.

In college (2005-2009), I ate in the cafeteria, which is where I met a lot of my friends. I would just take my tray over to a friendly-looking person or group and ask to join them. Back then, people spent their meals talking with each other. Sometimes way too loud, sometimes aggressively, but always always talking. Some people ate alone, but it was mostly groups.

Flash forward to 2016. I got a job at a hospital. This time, when I got to the cafeteria, a lot of people were eating alone and staring down at their phones. I still managed to make some new friends by smiling and asking to join a table, but boy was it harder this time. It seems like the default state is no longer socializing during meals.

I’m so lucky I went to college when I did. Those friends are still my friends now. Would we have met each other if we were constantly on our phones? I don’t know.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:16 am

This is a great question, and of course the answer depends on the person. You could get part of the answer by reflecting on how you used to fill your time before smartphones. I remember calling people / making plans more, going for walks, reading more books, etc.

It isn’t necessarily true that we’d go back to those same things however, and on days where I’ve experimented with restricting access to my phone I’ve found myself repeatedly running into these “dry spots” where I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I have been deconditioned from doing a lot of what I used to do naturally. All the more reason to take the issue seriously, imo.

I think one of the things phones do is make it zero-effort to “loaf.” Some loafing is probably good, but the phone makes anywhere/anytime an easy time to do it.

DiscoveredJoys February 23, 2023 at 3:00 am

When I was a lad people walking down the street talking to thin air were poor souls who were mentally challenged. Now people walk down the street alone but talking to people miles away. And often the conversation is banal rather than important. You also often see joggers or cyclists wearing ear buds or even earphones while moving.

All of this separates you from your environment, and can be dangerous if you ignore traffic and step off the curb and so on. The deepest danger to my mind (no pun intended) is that it gives you no time to yourself but merely distracts you with the thoughts and music of others.

Deborah Lee February 23, 2023 at 3:04 am

This is a topic I often discuss with my 19 year old son who looks at his phone every other minute. I used what I call the library book example, explaining to him that at his age if I wanted to find something out I’d have to get on a bus, go into town to the library and hop the book I wanted to borrow was available. The whole episode could take upwards of two hours. Now we simply pick up our phones; whether we find factual answers or not is another matter.
In essence, what was supposed to save us time has completely taken over our time. I understand there are further factors to consider concerning human behaviour, but the fact that we have essentially become consumers rather than creators is worrying to me.
I spend a lot of time reading about dementia (both parents were sufferers) and so anything that makes my brain’s life ‘easier’ is a red flag to me.
This is a great post – and one I shall be forwarding to my son!

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:21 am

I often think about that pre-phone era, and marvel at how much time some things took, such as looking something up a the library. Where did we get all the time? But as you say, we traded that for a massive time sink in the form of endless entertainment in our pockets.

Dani February 23, 2023 at 3:36 am

thanks for another thought to chew on ! i just came back from my Italian holiday where for the first day my internet wasn’t working. boy was that fun to navigate Milano without being able to check itineraries, restaurants, sights… i just went with the flow, made it to the Duomo by the chaotic metro system, stumbled upon a local snack gem, perused a real physical map, it felt like a real adventure again. it was helpful when the internet worked again to find my Airbnb though
I think it was you who recommended to do something else when the phone beckons…i always carry a novel with me do to that and it works great. similar like chewing gum instead of smoking, i don’t overthink the moment and just do it
lastly, i think scrolling the phone is getting more disreputable when out and about, i recognize people hiding that they are watching YouTube shorts, also when they admit to it they feel ashamed.
so we’re getting there :)

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:23 am

We should bring back carrying books around. What a lovely piece of technology, the paperback novel.

Vera February 23, 2023 at 4:11 am

I’m going to throw in my two cents here as a recent non-smoker. Smoking was a way to deal with my emotions. Or rather, the intensity of my emotions. Feeling angry? Have a cigarette. Feeling joyful? Have a cigarette. The metaphorical cloud of smoke would envelope the emotions, dulling the intensity and making life just a bit easier. I had tried quitting before but had never addressed the emotional aspect. I had to do a shit-ton of learning to manage my emotions this time before I stopped smoking. And it is going well.

So what does this all have to do with cellphone use? Since I quit, my time spent with my phone has ramped up. So when we mindlessly pick up our phones, I think we need to be asking ourselves a specific question. What am I feeling? I believe that the vast majority of the time, we’re avoiding uncomfortable emotions. So maybe that is what we need to be more aware of. Doing something else with that time and being more aware of what we’re feeling will certainly lead to more meaningful lives. And I’m not saying a phone isn’t useful, just that we need to be mindful of the use.

Tara February 23, 2023 at 9:13 am

I totally agree with this. My excessive time on the iPad is all about avoidance. Avoiding uncomfortable thoughts & emotions, avoiding things I should be doing but don’t want to, etc.

Ann February 23, 2023 at 9:27 am

I agree Vera – I am trying to get into the habit of asking myself the question “what does this moment call for?” and then making an intentional choice about what to do – including mindless scrolling of Instagram or reading or meditating or closing my eyes and acknowledging whatever I am feeling. The point is that I am making an intentional choice rather than mindlessly going through my day rushing from one thing to another where nothing is very intentional. This is not black and white – it’s really about pausing and asking yourself “what do I chose to do with my time in this moment?” and then move forward. That pause can make all the difference in the world.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:32 am

Ah that is interesting. One thing that’s more insidious about the phone than about cigarettes is that it is even easier to use. You don’t have to go outside, you don’t need 15 spare minutes, and you can’t run out. You can just pick it up and satisfy the impulse in seconds.

Tim February 23, 2023 at 4:24 am

Yeah, this phone thing really bugs me. I thought I had things under control… only using my phone moderately and responsibly… but recently TikTok-like Facebook Reels just keep sucking the life out of me… you click on one, because you know, it looks interesting and you’re curious… and then 20… 40… 60… minutes later and you’re still swiping for the next reel…

What is concerning to me, is that often I’m aware — IN THE MOMENT — that I’m mindlessly wasting time, yet I find it EXTREMELY hard to NOT just click on “one more” reel…

I’ve also started doing this at night before I go to bed, or rather, as I get into bed… and then another 30+ minutes gets wasted, and precious sleep gets lost…

I’m getting really annoyed with myself…

(I’m also quite worried for my 12 & 14-year-old son & daughter, who have each just received their first phone… God knows if it’s doing them harm or not…!)

My “cope” is that I wouldn’t be doing anything productive with the time anyways… that it forms part of my “leisure” time… but deep down I know that that is BS… wasting hours per day, and even regularly losing sleep, simply isn’t good…

Thanks for this article… I need to take action to stop this colossal waste of time!

Nick February 23, 2023 at 7:49 am

Good for you, Tim, for realizing the time suck of the doom scrolling. Don’t be a slave, be free. I was able to do so through Exodus 90 (www.exodus90.com), hopefully you find a system and some accountability that works for you.

And you are your children’s father. It is up to you to model good device behavior, and only give them the devices they need and are mature enough to deal with responsibly. In my case, my 12 yo and following 5 children will not be on their own devices for many years. Nor do they want them or even ask about them, they are constantly outside and enjoying the beauty of creation and each other’s company.
Hoping and praying you take this important realization into concrete action for yourself, your kids, your family and the world around you.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:34 am

Oh man, the reels have really sucked me in. Most of them are so stupid, but there’s always infinity more just behind it, and you can flip even more easily than changing the channel on TV. At least with television, you could flip through the cycle and conclude that there’s “nothing on.” We no longer have that. The barrel has no bottom!

Christine February 23, 2023 at 4:48 am

I think you are right. I am really aware of how much ttime I waste on the phone and I find it very difficult to stop.

victoria February 23, 2023 at 5:03 am

I just want to chime in for the people who are saying what would you do with that free time instead. Yesterday I sat in my chair on the balcony, the sun was shining at my face, the cat was sitting on my lap and I was alternating between looking at the tree in front of my window, reading a line out of a poetry book, and looking at my blissed out cat, and it struck me that I’m actually happy at this moment, as I have not been for a long time. Idling is good, when it’s a consious decision you make for yourself! My life is actually awfully stressful, but ever since I quit social media three years ago, I finally feel that I have control over my time, my brain, and my emotions. I can plan my day and fit yoga and running and meditation, and I’m not sliding into my phone for relief every time a difficult thought arises. It’s still difficult, the thought that I’m missing out on “social” aspect of the internet creeps in from time to time, but as I look back I only feel pain for the amount of time I wasted in my 20’s in front of the screen. It is an addiction, I have no doubt about it

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:35 am

This is an inspiration. There are definitely two aspects to moving away from it — stopping the excessive use, and training the replacement behaviors. I think the second one might be the harder one.

Heather February 23, 2023 at 5:59 am

David, this is SPOT ON. The smoking analogy is perfectly apt: phones and cigs are life sucking, health destroying, addictive. I have not been happy with my phone usage for some time but it finally dawned on me that my behavior has become addictive. I see others around who’ve got it even worse. Most painful are young fathers and mothers walking their babies whilst staring at their phones. They are frittering away the most precious moments of their lives but they won’t know it because they won’t remember. It will be as if those minutes and hours never happened.
Thank you, as always, for sharing your insight.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:36 am

It has clearly crossed into “addiction” territory for me too, and it’s obviously worse than a few years ago. Time for an intervention of some kind.

Patricia February 23, 2023 at 6:30 am

Hello … The mobile phone I have is a Pay-as-You -Go which rarely is with me and I must remember to top it up so that I don’t lose the money I have already put on it . I have chosen this intentionally for a variety of reasons one of them being the amount of time I truly waste just being on the internet through a computer . I can well imagine that if I had a ” Smart” phone used for everything in daily living I wouldn’t believe that I could still go about daily living without one. Whilst society still has the processes and tools in place , landlines , written maps , post offices , stamps , pens , paper , human voices etc. it is possible to live a full and productive life ! Now if I could only discipline myself to stay off the computer – smile ! P.S. I am old enough to remember when we were told cigarette smoking and asbestos weren’t hazardous to our health . Visit Canadians4safetechnology to learn more information about the hazards of Electro Magnetic Radiation

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:37 am

I will look at pay-as-you-go options when my contract is up. Anything to add a bit more friction to the pick-up-the-phone reflex.

Liesl February 23, 2023 at 6:41 am

This reminds me of the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. When I first read it, I was very convicted and put a lot of time and effort into reducing my phone use. But those strategies quickly fell out of use. I try to justify it—I’m a teenager and I don’t see any of my friends on a regular basis because they live so far away—but there’s really no excuse, is there? I really need to get back into those strategies. Thanks for the post.

Kevin February 23, 2023 at 7:51 am

That book is fantastic, but you’re right- it’s tough to keep those habits up long-term.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:38 am

So I own this book and I know I read it and that it had an effect on me, but for the life of me I cannot remember a single thing I learned. Time to revisit it I think.

Red February 23, 2023 at 7:38 am

I’d be interested to learn WHEN we reach for our phones. This often becomes automatic but what if we slowed that process down and noticed. Are we nervous? Bored? Ruminating? If nothing else, our phones provide us with entertainment and distraction, but from what? From what are we trying to distract ourselves?

Pam February 23, 2023 at 8:16 am

Such a good observation.
I find that when I’m stressed and unhappy, I fall into my phone like it’s an abyss. Because I don’t want to experience my life. I want to escape from it.

Nick February 23, 2023 at 7:42 am

Nice article. I am currently part of a program called Exodus 90 (www.exodus90.com). One of the principles is to avoid non-work-related phone and device usage and scrolling for the 90 days leading up to Easter. So necessary, so liberating! I highly recommend cutting the addiction.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:43 am

Looking at this now. Part of the problem in rectifying the overuse is delineating what are justifiabel uses and what aren’t. Abstaining from “scrolling” might be a good boundary. The time-suck effect doesn’t happen with everything, such as email or checking my fantasy hockey scores. I don’t read endless articles or ebooks. It’s only with those “bottomless” sorts of activities, like Reddit and Twitter that I start losing my life.

Kevin February 23, 2023 at 7:49 am

I think you absolutely nailed it here. Social media (and our phones) are the new smoking. Like you, I’ve sat down to check something, only to get sidetracked for 20-30 minutes and forget what I was supposed to do.

Adding some friction (e.g., removing apps) helps, but that only goes so far.

P.S. I hate to say it, but there are some days when I really miss that post-meal cigarette.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:44 am

Friction can go a long way, but yeah, our pleasure-seeking brains always seem to find a way around.

Michael Weinraub February 24, 2023 at 8:49 am

I really liked James Clear’s discussion of the mechanics of forming new habits in Atomic Habits. It’s a little bit like being on the Whole 30 diet (apparently I love experimenting in 30-day units;) where your desire for certain types of foods actually diminishes over time, for physical and psychological reasons. So too, changing our visual cues and stackable habits can actually diminish our desire for “negative” stimuli.

Peter E Varley March 3, 2023 at 10:34 pm

In the 1950-1980‘s the motivation to smoke was to look cool. Now, being nerdy or well-onformed is both cool and is attached to survival. But as a result, people have become less personable and they develop their personalities less. At the end of the day, the world needs love. The phone use doesn’t help with that.

Rocky February 23, 2023 at 7:54 am

I could not agree more with what you’re saying here David. My quandary is this: phone abuse is an addiction.
And just like cigarettes or alcohol, you cannot dial it back. That trick never works…..Ultimately you have to quit cold turkey. But how are you going to do that in today’s world where the positive benefits of our smartphones have become such an essential tool in many aspects of our lives.
All that being said…. I still haven’t ruled out throwing my iPhone into the River.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:48 am

Throwing it into the river would be such a cathartic moment. I remember a similar moment depicted at the end of the movie “Hook,” where Robin Williams finally has enough of being on his work cellphone all the time and throws it out the window, to the cheers of his children. That was 1990.

But yeah, unlike cigarettes, you can’t just “quit.” unless you go full dumb-phone, which I don’t really want to do. There has to be a way to draw a boundary between helpful and unhelpful uses. I think Nick above is on to something by defining “scrolling” as a behavior worth curbing. I believe it is the bottomlessness of certain online activities that is so addictive.

aletheia33 March 3, 2023 at 2:17 pm

for all the reasons discussed here, i have so far refused to use a smartphone. i do have a tracfone that i use for “emergencies”. this is the result of witnessing the effect of this machine on all of my friends and loved ones as they gradually have all chosen to “carry”. i simply cannot understand their willingness to be constantly at the beck and call, when they are not working to earn their livelihoods, of all kinds of intrusive interruptions. these interruptions ALWAYS distract one from living in the present. i don’t understand how it is that people who claim to be interested in developing spiritually and meditating are so comfortable carrying these distraction devices around with them all the time. as if there weren’t enough distractions coming at one all the time already. distractions from being present to one’s one and only short span of life. for me it’s not just the scrolling thing, it’s the phone itself. how do all the “conveniences” of instant internet access at all times really compensate for the attendant loss of conscious choice? lose of consciousness, and loss of choice. my best guess is that it is purely due to social pressure–it’s just too darn hard for virtually everybody to conceive of the awful struggle they would have in life without this machine. seriously, i wish someone could please explain this to me–why are you, why is everyone, voluntarily turning themselves into slaves to unconsciousness? end of rant.

Karen February 23, 2023 at 7:58 am

Eckhart Tolle once said that we should use our phones when we need them, and refrain from picking them up when we don’t. I think about this often. Checking the weather, our email (not repetitively) or looking up tonight’s recipe seem like useful reasons. Going to the internet just to see what’s happening seem less so.

When I catch myself looking at my phone without any direction or purpose I immediately think (after some mind training): “let me go pick up my book.”

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 9:50 am

I believe he also said that about thinking itself — that the thinking mind is a tool you pick up when you need it, and make sure to put it down when you’ve done the thing you picked it up for.

I would love to retrain the impulse of picking up a book instead.

Haley February 23, 2023 at 8:13 am

As a former smoker, I completely agree with your analysis here. I never even thought to compare the two, although they are so similar in regards to wasting time and shortening life. This will make me think twice about idly scrolling. Thanks for sharing!

Cristy February 23, 2023 at 8:16 am

This is very timely. I realize that every minute that I am zoning out touching my phone is time I am not deeply, juicily living my life. Now, over the past few years I have quit drinking and gone through some serious loss and I was not worried about using my phone to numb out– I classified it as less bad for me than drinking. However, I am reaching the point with the phone that I reached with alcohol– it bores me and is “dead” time offering me nothing– other than some cultural references and knowledge of celebrity shenanigans, so…. nothing. It is a colossal waste of my precious time, which is finite. So, this is the next thing I tackle.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:02 am

The phone is numbing in a way, in that it’s a “one size fits all” response to feeling not-great. You can *always* turn to it and that makes it dangerous. I wonder if that one size fits all quality is behind so many addictions (smoking, alcohol, sex, etc.).

Yitzhak February 23, 2023 at 8:17 am

Thanks for this thought provoking post. I think you can add another dimension to this analogy — secondhand smoking, and the harmful effects that excessive smarthphone use has on those around us, especially children.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:15 am

I did think of that, but the analogy was getting a bit convoluted haha. There is truth in it for sure.

Anna February 23, 2023 at 8:46 am

I’ve bought a lockbox for my children’s phones. I put them in from 9pm till 7pm the next day. It was expensive but It was the best investment I ever made. I saw a programme about phones and they did some brain scans and the brain reacts the same way as someone taking heroin. I wouldn’t give my kids heroin and tell them to control how much They could take. They actually ask me sometimes to put it in the box in the holidays because they just can’t control themselves. I’m thinking of getting a box for me so I can put it in for a few hours here and there during the day.
My mum is always saying that it’s just a huge experiment… Some time soon the scientists will start proving how bad it is for children and adults and you won’t be able to buy a phone until 18yrs old.
I probably sound old but I have noticed the effects on my own brain and how differently the children are when I take it away or when they have it for too long. Thanks for your excellent article!

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:05 am

There’s something about the possibility of concrete interventions like this that is reassuring. We can physically separate ourselves from the device, which sounds drastic, but maybe it is one of those drastic threats that require drastic measures. I’m glad to hear it is working well.

Kelly February 23, 2023 at 8:49 am

Thanks for the reminder David. Unlike smoking it is possible to use these devices for good without the downside but can be very difficult. A book I found helpful on this topic was 24/6 by Tiffany Shlain. There is already research pointing to your intuitions here about the health impact on humans especially mental health.

John Bulmer February 23, 2023 at 9:00 am

Thanks David.

Totally agree with this. The challenge always is determining when ‘mindful phone usage’ becomes ‘wasteful phone usage’.

Lionel February 23, 2023 at 9:23 am

Thought provoking as always David. While the analogy is stretched, the point is valid.

A while ago, I made a couple of “hacks” to be sure my phone was my tool and not the other way around…

When I reach for my phone, without a specific reason, I stop and ask myself what lack I am feeling (because it usually is an emotional state of some lack).

When I reach for my phone with a specific reason (e.g. I’m old enough to actually still make/get phone calls), I immediately put it back in my pocket and ask the same question. And, if I do want to check emails or texts I missed, I time-box how long I will spend.

Internet scrolling on my desktop is my next uh, “growth edge”. ;)

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:12 am

I put a little phone-holder on my kitchen wall, and sometimes I put my phone in it when it is distractingly. It works amazingly well when I do this, but often I don’t bother. The little tricks work.

Sherel February 23, 2023 at 9:31 am

Personally, I think you’re spot on with the smoking analogy — and I, unfortunately, am addicted to “just one more thing” or “Oh, yeah! I was gonna look up _____” If nothing else, the analogy holds true with the warning I’ve heard that “sitting is the new smoking”. Sure, you can look at your phone while standing — or even risk looking while walking (watch out for those lamp posts, everyone!), but I know I tend to be sitting. It is the little reward I afford myself at the completion of a task or the end of the day. The little reward that grows and grows and has ever so rarely proven to be of genuine worth. Raptitude, in the form of David Cain, is one of the gems I’ve found and is most appreciated! Thank you for sharing another eye-opener.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:14 am

Part of the difficulty of addressing the problem is that there are good things on the internet. I am hoping to ditch certain phone activities altogether, and replace them with reading the enormous backlog of hundreds of saved articles I have on there.

Dave February 23, 2023 at 9:44 am

About 4 years ago I found myself leaving the house to do something. As I sat on a chair putting my shoes on, I pulled out my phone quick to check Facebook or something. About an hour later, I was still sitting in that chair, shoes on, mindlessly scrolling. After snapping out of it, I was so upset I quit all social media. I ended up joining a climbing gym and replacing social media with language learning via Duolingo (which has its own addiction risks). Today, I still regularly attend this gym and teach yoga there (of which my practice began at this gym) and I have a 1500+ day streak on duolingo. I still fight with phone usage and any time I let in one of these time sucks on my phone (recently snapchat or youtube shorts) I find myself falling in to the same hole and have to pull myself out again. There is no happy medium to me for most of these programs that are built to take your attention.

David Cain February 23, 2023 at 10:11 am

Woo! Well done on taking positive steps. That sort of upsetting moment is familiar to me. I get absolutely locked in. Right now I’m excited to take cathartic step but not sure where to draw the boundary. I think for Lent I will give up a certain list of “bottomless scrolling” activities (namely Twitter, Instagram, Reddit) because that’s where I get trapped.

I also joined a climbing gym (about a year ago now) and it is a huge part of my life. I am so much healthier than I would be if I didn’t. Small moves like that can create big changes.

John February 23, 2023 at 10:28 am

Hi David,
Thanks for posting this. I use my phone way too much, and it’s hard to notice most of the time, but it’s true.

I always imagine that a scene of a quietly terrifying society could’ve been depicted by the 1980s Twilight Zone series as streets full of people walking around and each person staring at a little rectangle.

Phones also seem like electronic Swiss Army knives – everything customizable to the individual purposes of the user.

They’re also wonderful for hiding in.

So I think it’s really important to remember that our lives come with a finite duration
These attractions of the phone are cozy and personal and accepting – and what am I willing to put up with? What is my time worth to me?

What I practise I get better at. So do I want that to be thumb-typing and scrolling and getting pissed off at journalism styles I can’t stand and needing to check for new little things I don’t like anyway?
Or is there something else I’ve been wanting to solve or get better at, or do I actually want to get to literal grips with the tangible parts of my experience?

Thanks again for the post!

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:32 am

Part of the problem is that smart phones can be like space-age Swiss army knives — they’re too useful to give up entirely. But their entertainment functions are so integrated with the utilitarian functions that it’s incredibly difficult to use them in one way and not the other.

Jamie Kalakaru-Mava February 23, 2023 at 10:28 am

Have you read “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy” by James Williams?

I read that and followed it with “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr, which was a good historical lead-up to the problem addressed in Williams’ book.

The books were excellent reminders to be mindful of how I’m spending my time, what kind of information I’m consuming, and what updates I’m sharing.

We spend our attention sometimes to the detriment of other things we would prefer to be doing with our life. If it was laid out the way our finances are laid out in a budget, would we make the same choices? And further, do those at the helm of content control have our best in mind?

I feel like you would very much appreciate them both, they are very aligned with the values you’re noting in this post (and in most of your writing!)

Brian February 23, 2023 at 10:50 am

At least smoking might give you a cough and shortness of breath to motivate you to quit. Smart phone is endlessly boosting your dopamine. Perhaps the analogy should be to crack or crystal. Adult use of smart phones is only the tip of the iceberg compared to use by adolescents and children. How many parents give their children–even 2 year olds–a device to play with while the parent uses their own? We are being wired for submission–at least those addicted to the dopamine bursts. Maybe we should abbreviate “dopamine bursts” to DOPES.

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:33 am

It’s true — one of the virtues of cigarettes is that they punish you in the short term as well as the long. If they didn’t there would be way more smokers.

Amy February 23, 2023 at 10:57 am

I’m less concerned with lost time than I am with the way constant Google, social media, and camera access are shaping my brain and thoughts. When I wonder about something, I find myself shaping that wonder into a simple question that Google can answer, rather than exploring, experimenting, and testing on my own. I tap into social media instead of contacting people I care about, take a photo instead of pondering, sketching, writing, or actually remembering. I became dependent on the ease of ebooks on my phone during lockdowns, even though the reading experience is less immersive and imaginative than on paper. My phone makes life safer, easier, more comfortable, and less meaningful.

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:35 am

Yeah this is a whole other aspect of the problem. The phone is really just a kind of hardware that has multiplied this effect, because it’s always right there.

aletheia33 March 3, 2023 at 2:52 pm

thank you for this great comment, with which i agree. i appreciate your clear presentation of the alternatives. i’ve come to believe that when we try to push away the concrete, tactile, difficult, and/or challenging aspects of being human–including relationships, healthy debate, clear communication, patient listening, and all the chores of daily living–we become lost. meaning disappears. and if we believe that our lives are truly safer, easier, more comfortable–we are deluded. because in the material universe, where we humans must dwell, nothing is free. a lesson humanity is now refusing to learn as irreversible effects of climate change, constant toxic wars, and rampant disease sweep across the planet, our only home. and yes, i do think all of these problems are connected, within our own consciousness, with which we’ve created the species-threatening dilemma we now find ourselves in.

Philip Miller February 23, 2023 at 11:33 am

Every word here is true.
Love everyone and take no shit.
The Apocalypse is here, rejoice!

The Gnostic Apocalypse, that is.

Björn February 23, 2023 at 11:57 am

Hey, I remember your old post about switching your phone screen to grayscale! But then came a somewhat later post where you kinda admitted you were back to square one more or less, that the phone addiction was so strong. I feel you.

I tried the grayscale trick for a couple days, but then I was going to need to show some bus ticket to a bus driver and was afraid they would think something was off with the app being in grayscale (yes, super silly), so I switched back, and then it “poured out in the sand” as we say in Swedish.

We keep on struggling here in my house, and I agree with everything you say here. As you responded to another comment, the argument “But what would you otherwise do with your time?“ doesn’t make phone addiction less pressing of an issue, but more! Talk about bad sign, we have even lost the imagination to come up with more meaningful things to do (like working on one’s Depth Year, maybe? *ka-tsching*). Speaking of Depth Year, I’ve been picking up my 25 year old acoustic a lot more lately and am thinking of having it re-stringed for the first time. Ironically, I’m terrible at remembering songs, so I’m still mostly sitting by my computer screen while I play following along the chords…

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:38 am

Greyscale did help. The main problem I had was that posting a picture was difficult because I couldn’t see quite what I was posting. Others would see it in color, and color changes the composition. For example, a background object might look like the focal point because it’s brightly colored, even though to me something else is the focal point. It seems like such a nitpicky thing but I felt like it was creating a disconnect between what I’m saying and what’s being heard. Maybe I’ll try it again, because I might have been making too much of that.

izzy February 23, 2023 at 12:22 pm

It’s the same or even worse for casual browsing on the computer. A nonproductive waste of time in most cases. I never got into smoking. Now at age 75, I recall how much more space there seemed to be in life before these devices became ubiquitous and even mandatory. But I’m not sure if I actually accomplished more back then, though I am sure it all seemed to be less in a rush, and unburdened by the relentless avalanche of so-called information. The human scale is a real thing. We exceed it at our peril.

aletheia33 March 3, 2023 at 2:54 pm

agreed. thank you.

Linda Lesperance February 23, 2023 at 12:24 pm

I’d like to bring up the subject of second-hand Smart phone time -wasting. What about how it effects those around the habitual user? (small sarcasm sign above head).

Andrea February 23, 2023 at 12:30 pm

I set app timer on my phone to allow one hour a day on my two top timewasting apps. It has made me more aware but the truth is, if I have nothing more pressing to do, I just override the timer. (I have those app notifications turned off already too.) A two-fold approach of having lots of stuff I want to get done combined with the timer seems to be working better. Keeping my mind/hands busy and engaged in more worthwhile activities is a big help to reducing mindless scrolling and check-in’s.

Andrea February 23, 2023 at 12:40 pm

My dog looks at me hopefully, waiting patiently for attention, while I turn to my screen once again. I miss out on personal connection. My observation ability taken up with screens, isn’t as free to notice an actual person struggling and assist them. I see humanity struggles on the screen and give a like, maybe donate a dollar or five; but the real connection of coming alongside others and serving them is missed. It is long overdue to put down the phone & still I don’t. If nothing else I love the illusion that I gain personal growth by listening to blogs or audible. I gain more get up and go by using it to play music. I use it to fall asleep listening to the bible. I text the odd person or messenger. Those uses give me a sense of value and gain. I’m not sure if it’s just an illusion. I may be guilty of consuming content without applying it, hoping somehow it’ll sink into my being through listening to it.

aletheia33 March 3, 2023 at 2:58 pm

i would suggest that at some point you become sure if it’s just an illusion or not. when we become willing to look deeply and honestly at our own actions, which is hard, we find that we are capable of perceiving the truth that calls to us most strongly. it is possible to develop one’s ability to consciously choose–and it is difficult. and worth it.

JD February 23, 2023 at 3:58 pm

Hi David,

You might find the method from https://internetaddictsanonymous.org/ useful. It apparently takes inspiration from similar 12 step programs that deal with overeating/sex addiction i.e. compulsive behaviours that need to be managed rather than quit completely. I would not categorise myself as an internet addict but I definitely feel uncomfortable at times with how I use my devices. I have had some success with defining top/middle/bottom line behaviours as outlined in their method, and refusing to engage in the bottom line ones that turn into time sinks (for me – online news, compulsive Googling, social media).

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:42 am

Thanks. Looking at this top/middle/bottom line thing now.

Derrick February 23, 2023 at 4:58 pm

Brilliant analogy! I will be using it often. Thanks!

Caitlin February 23, 2023 at 5:29 pm

I love this post. I realized last year that I had a serious problem with social media and that I was wasting too much precious time on it. I decided to drastically reduce it in my life to maybe 5 minutes a day, and I’ve only seen positive benefits. I’m reading more (just started the Anne of Green Gables books), writing more, watching longer films, cultivating new hobbies, and my mental health has improved considerably.

Once you feel the difference in your wellbeing when the noise and randomness of the online world is cleansed from your system, you’ll never want to go back. I felt the benefits within a week. I used to sink hours of my life into being on social media. Not anymore.

I liked what you said in one of your posts about how you spend your time actually being how you spend your life. Jessica Dore, in her book “Tarot for Change,” also talks about how what we pay attention to is a kind of worship. Be careful what you are worshipping.

I have found the reddit sub nosurf to be very helpful. It has resources and offers some support. It helps to see other people reducing their time on the internet as well. I think it’s a big problem in our society today. Everyone is addicted to their phones and to social media and short videos. It can’t be good for our minds. Johann Hari’s “Stolen Focus” goes deeper into a lot of these issues as well.

Good luck to anyone who starts reducing the internet and social media in their lives. It is worth it.

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:44 am

I’m glad to hear a few success stories here. What is the main change you made to make such a drastic reduction?

(I’m looking at r/nosurf right now.)

Cath Stark February 23, 2023 at 5:35 pm

Thank you David, once again for a great post and for me at a perfect time too Lent.

Xavier February 23, 2023 at 7:31 pm

Been reading your stuff for over 10 years. Valuable content!

Getting off of reddit is one of the best things I’ve ever done to improve my life.

Now I only visit a sub or two, without being logged in, so I don’t get sucked into up and down voting and the rest of the social media vortex.

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:46 am

Reddit is a bad one for me. I have been “off” it many times, often for months or more, and it is absolutely better. Unfortunately it is sometimes incredibly useful (i.e. getting an answer to a question from real people) so I don’t want to block it or swear off it, but 95% of the time I am just aimlessly surfing.

Matylda February 23, 2023 at 10:20 pm

This definitely came home as I am currently reading Anders Hansen’s “The Attention Fix”. Thank you for this fresh angle on the issue!

Calt February 24, 2023 at 3:19 am

David, what a fantastic analogy, thank you!
There’s one think I want to point out which resonates with the smoking analogy: the smartphone addiction repels other people like cigarettes do with their smoke.
Whenever I share a meal with friends or family, I often find myself “alone”: everybody is staring at their phone and they often emerge from it drained and distracted. This upsets me and makes me avoid further conversation, I feel the impulse to leave as soon as possible. I assume it goes also the other way around, whenever I’m distracted during a meeting or in a conversation.

That’s to say this addiction, although normal and accepted, may harm also our social relationships and the people we love around us.

Thank you again

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:47 am

I like to think I never use it like that, but I can think of some circumstances when I certainly do (and often it’s because I feel that someone else doing it gives me “permission” to randomly check a few apps).

Jessi February 24, 2023 at 8:14 am

I don’t think it’s an ill comparison at all. Social media is incredibly addictive because it’s DESIGNED to be and I think the problem lies in the fact that most people don’t really even make a conscious choice to do it. I’ve been weaning away from social media for a while now. Taking it totally off my phone has helped a TON, but I remember a year or so ago I took a week off and for the first three days I was constantly trying to click on the apps that no longer existed. It was automatic. THAT is scary. It’s like we’re zoning out and lighting up another cig.
Not sure I’d agree that it’s similar to things like rewatching a television show. I get the comparison with not being productive in that time, but I also think some of those options, as long as you’re doing it consciously and not automatically, are very helpful for relaxation. I like to rewatch a series and it definitely doesn’t feel the same as using my phone to scroll on reddit.
I don’t know. I think there is a fine line between deciding not to waste the precious time we have and getting too obsessed with “doing doing doing” all the time. For those of us who have trouble not doing, a television show in the background can really help to calm the mind, you know?

David Cain February 24, 2023 at 9:52 am

They are designed to be addictive, for sure.

In the post I was making a distinction between activities like rewatching TV shows and surfing Reddit. The former is an activity that you might argue is not the best way to spend time, but it’s not killing you like smoking (or doomscrolling) is. I do not believe we need to spend every moment being productive. You could even argue that leisure time is productive, because it allows us to get important things done the rest of the time.

Michael Weinraub February 24, 2023 at 8:40 am

This really resonates with me, just on a Thoreauian “the value of a thing is the amount of life I’m willing to expend for it” kind of way. I’m toward the end of a 30-day Cal Newport-inspired digital declutter, and it is wonderful and easier than I thought to set pretty direct limits on my phone use and eliminate Twitter entirely. I feel better and am finding other ways to access good ideas and interaction. Reading this blog post through my Feedly feed is a perfect example. Cheers!

David Cain February 25, 2023 at 11:40 am

I’ve started re-listening to Digital Minimalism and I’ve already come up with a set of rules I’ll follow for the rest of Lent. It already feels empowering.

Imagine what Thoreau would think of all this!

Jessica Schweig February 24, 2023 at 12:41 pm

Great post, as usual! I think your analogy fits but I would add something that I’ve noticed that most folks aren’t commenting on — yes, it is a big time-waster in many instances, but what I find the most troubling is when I see people IN GROUPS, say at a table while dining, all on their phones rather than engaging in conversation with each other! I have often observed a table of 4 people with everyone sitting there on their phones and not conversing with one another! It’s truly disturbing to me. Maybe I’m alone in noticing this or in finding it upsetting, but I’m curious if others here think that phone use is sometimes used in social settings to avoid interacting with others? Is this acceptable behavior or do others find it rude or off-putting?

David Cain February 25, 2023 at 11:44 am

One phenomenon I’ve noticed is that when one person is looking at their phone while sitting with others, it can feel like “permission” to take your own phone out. Then suddenly everyone at the table is doing it, because it is increasingly awkward to just sit there. I’ve made a vow not to take out my phone with others. As someone with a history of social anxiety, I totally get the attraction to it. Looking at your phone makes it feel like your insulated from the risk of social interaction, because you’ve made yourself into a sort of “closed loop.”

Elise Borman February 24, 2023 at 10:05 pm

Honestly I appreciate you putting all of this into words, and I do feel that the smoking analogy is appropriate. I’m in my mid-twenties and find myself torn between a generation that lives the majority of life online, and a generation that was raised to be wary of the internet…and every day I feel like I am swaying one way or the other. Overall, I badly want to limit my phone time each day, because I can feel it sapping away my motivation to pursue my goals and dreams! This feels especially detrimental as the 20’s are meant to be the time that I can ‘figure it all out’, and how does that journey work if I’m spending so much time watching others do it rather than doing it myself? As above commenters have mentioned it is definitely addictive, and my personal struggle is managing that addiction, resisting the temptation to be pulled back into the doom scroll.

David Cain February 25, 2023 at 11:46 am

Best of luck staying as free as possible of its gravity. I’m 42, which puts my on the Gen-X side of the Gen-X millennial divide, and I have been wholly captured by this technology. I have been wary of the internet for a long time, but that’s because I know it’s really got its hooks in me.

Kay February 27, 2023 at 10:56 am

It seems to me that we often use phones exactly as we used to use cigarettes—that is, as patterned behaviors to control uncomfortable emotions. Boredom, silence, being alone, anxiety, anger, self-consciousness, unworthiness, shame, you name it, and smoking or scrolling can “help.” Once you feel how true this is, the jig is up. You can still avoid your feelings, but you know you are choosing it.

Forest February 27, 2023 at 2:29 pm

David you seem to often write on things very pertinent to my life. You are spot on here I think. Addiction research certainly agrees with you.

When people started constantly looking at their phones in public, I was appalled and proud not to take part for a long time. Today, after kids (boredom) and fairly high job success (now lower motivation), my tech use is excessive. In the past few months, I’ve started to describe it to myself and eventually others, as an addition, which it truly is.

Addiction research that I’ve listened to details about indicates that you can become addicted to most anything, and obviously tech has the right mechanism to addict us. The number one recommendation is going cold turkey for 2 (tough) weeks … I’ve tried, enjoyed the results and then relapsed. Dr. Anna Lemke has been interviewed on youtube many times about this. She has written “Dopamine Nation”, which I’ve started on audiobook.

Mike February 28, 2023 at 12:05 pm

The irony is not lost on me that I read this and am now commenting via a smartphone. I think there’s definitely a case to be made for putting this device down more often.

Fred Fifield March 3, 2023 at 5:15 pm

Looks like I’m the only one who thought this was the stupidest thing he ever read. My Mom had lung cancer from smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day. I’m pretty sure I can speak for my entire family when I say I wish she had a smartphone to waste time looking at rather than smoking all of those cigarettes.

Moe March 6, 2023 at 5:52 pm

In the beginning of phones on every single body of us, I would complain about it a lot- I’d ask my boyfriend to put it down already, we were at a restaurant for God’s sake. But the phone use flooded over us. I saw a little girl, maybe 4 years old at a restaurant asking her dad to put his phone away and talk to her- and he wouldn’t. Yeah, I’d say the phone thing is pretty bad, and it is like the 50’s.

Smoking was a great analogy, it grabbed my attention- but no contest- smoking is deadly beyond belief and I’ve lost 3 family members to it. It’s worse than cell phone use, and I would like the smokes gone before the cell phones in public. But I’ll take both.

I miss a world where I’m allowed to go somewhere without people being pissed off I didn’t text them back. When did it become a crime to leave the phone home. I miss the 70’s terribly, minus the Marlboros.

Anonymously March 11, 2023 at 5:14 pm

I’m late to the comments party but I receive the newsletter from Becoming Minimalist and found your article linked. I just wanted to mention that I am one of the non-smokers (both literally and figuratively). I have a non-smart phone and only have bought phone service for it. No data, no internet. I have so little interest in it outside of phone calls that it often goes unused for days. I will likely have to replace it with an iPhone when the time comes but I won’t get texting or internet then either. I really, truly do not get this phone obsession but I accept it is real.

Michael Johnson March 11, 2023 at 5:43 pm

David Cain doesn’t have an issue with technology at all !

Val Powell March 12, 2023 at 6:34 am

I totally agree because it is an issue for me. Lately I have been noticing how much time I have spent going down rabbit holes on the internet to the point where I cannot recall where and why I started in the first place! Having considered this article I am going to try being mindful and purposeful in my use of my iPhone by thinking carefully each time why I need to use my iphone eg is it a necessary task or could I live without doing it? I’m doing so only the things that enhance my life, (which I guess will be different for different people) and discard the rest. I will try and use a minimalist approach to this by removing the clutter (apps, links, emails I need to unsubscribe from, and clear out my Facebook friends I no longer have contact with, contacts in address book etc). From there I will set a timer for each carefully chosen activity on my iPhone to avoid those rabbit holes and create self awareness. I’ll see how it goes! Thank you for raising this – it is concerning that this new addiction is so widespread – everywhere I go folk are just staring at their phones and not present to those around them! I don’t believe we were created for this – I believe we need healthy human relationships and interactions to thrive and to enjoy the time we have purposefully.

JBalconi March 12, 2023 at 8:30 am

I quit smoking by drinking water diring those normal smoking breaks.

I decided to so something when my usage reached almost 40 hours a week. I don’t use my phone for work, either. I switched to audio-only apps. Even for YouTube and most local news, I leave the phone in one room, put on big headphones, and work on whatever needs doing.

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