Most of the research on phone addiction and deprivation is done on students. It’s not just the “kids these days,” though. At 45, I’m a recovering addict. It’s been four months since I uninstalled social networking apps, three months since I last posted on Facebook, and two months since I turned off all notifications on my smartphone. Before I started the detox program, I checked my phone about five times an hour. That’s about half as often as the average millennial but about three times as often as most people of my generation in the U.S. Now, I’m down to once an hour.
I think I got hooked because of my job. When I started out as a reporter in the late 1980s, you used your legs to get a story and teletype or dictation to file it from a remote location. It got progressively easier with email, the internet, search engines, social networks, and mobile communication. I could follow developments in several countries through a network of Facebook friends; in Ukraine, politicians became so addicted to Facebook that it became almost pointless to talk to them. In the U.S., much of the high-level political debate occurs on Twitter thanks in no small part to its tweeter in chief. I told myself that maintaining accounts on every social network was necessary for work, but that was absurd: most of these posts and videos were useless to me as a journalist.
I was submerged in the cozy haze of smartphone addiction, and it’s hard to say how it differed from substance abuse. “Comfort kills, discomfort creates,” wrote Jean Cocteau in his personal account of opium detoxication.
So, like someone trying to wean himself off a substance, I started experimenting with discomfort. That’s when I lost the Facebook and Twitter apps, which were eating up most of my screen time. I figured that out from battery use statistics. At first, I felt such acute deprivation that I had to open Facebook and Twitter in a browser. That was less convenient, and my phone use dropped a little, but I wasn’t able to completely swear off Facebook for a few more weeks. FOMO — the fear of missing out — ruined several mornings; I reverted to peeking for a couple of days, then forced myself to stop.
As Cocteau wrote, “I am not a detoxicated person proud of his effort. I am ashamed of having been chased out of this supernatural world after which health resembled a bad movie in which ministers inaugurate a statue.” After having kicked opium, Cocteau still had alcohol and cocaine. I kept updating and reading Twitter, although I gradually cut down on arguing with people on it — that had been time-consuming and sometimes emotionally draining. Now, I’m down to 30 minutes of Twitter a day: That’s enough for work.
We touch our smartphones — tap, click, swipe — more than 2,500 times a day. That’s probably 100 times more often than we touch our partner. The reason we do it is that the phone constantly demands attention by sending us notifications. It does so every time someone wants to connect with us, every time something changes in an app, every time an artificially intelligent entity decides we need information. Notifications have a barely veiled commercial purpose: Once we start playing with the phone, we’re likely to open more apps, see more ads, buy more stuff.
It’s relatively easy to retake control; I went into my phone’s settings and banned every one of the 112 apps from sending notifications. Now, I only check my personal and corporate email accounts, as well as two messenger apps, when I want to, not when my device wants me to. That means my friends must wait longer than they used to for a response. They haven’t noticed — or at least they haven’t commented on it. We overestimate the need for immediacy in communication; perhaps our kids don’t because they live their addiction to a greater extent than we do, but an adult finds it easy to wait for a response.
Recovering addicts know it’s impossible to be perfectly clean: Even if you don’t use your favorite substance, you miss it. At the end of his opium essay, Cocteau wrote wistfully that perhaps “the young” might someday discover “a regime that would allow one to keep the benefits of the poppy” without getting addicted. That remains impossible for drugs but maybe not for smartphones.
After reasserting control over my digital life, I’m nearly ready to take further steps. My next goal is to be able to use it as an electronic book reader without ever switching from the Kindle app to the browser or the email and messenger apps. I expect a boost in reading speed, another way to battle my FOMO. A forced experiment during a two-week holiday in the south of France without high-speed internet produced hopeful results.
As I stood in a chapel Cocteau designed in the hills above Frejus, I felt healthier, able to breathe easier, almost capable of relearning how to lose myself in the company of my beloved wife and children, who are, of course, fighting their own battles with gadget addiction. Perhaps our lives can be a little more like their pre-iPhone versions. If Cocteau could kick his habit, so can we.
This column was originally published on Bloomberg and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.