I was addicted to my smartphone, but withdrawing from social media has calmed my mind and made me a better real-life friend.
Towards the end of 2014 I was burned out, for a variety of reasons. My job at the time involved working in a busy open plan office, with constant interruptions and competing demands. Like most of my colleagues, I spent my breaks checking social media, email and YouTube or playing Candy Crush. Yes, I was as addicted as the next person, and yes, I probably did send you those annoying Facebook requests. Guilty as charged.
The defence for the screen-addicted is simple: according to Daniel J Levitin’s latest book, The Organized Mind, replying to texts, emails and Facebook messages delivers a shot of dopamine straight to the brain, which makes us feel good. That cute sneezing panda takes our minds off our troubles, and makes us feel connected. Levitin says we also feel as if we are accomplishing something every time we hit send. Not only do we have to be productive at work, we also need to be sufficiently productive in our virtual lives. Nobody wants to feel irrelevant.
But there is a cost to this constant juggling act. Stress and cognitive impairment can be the result of constant distraction, Levitin says, and the science reflects exactly the state of mind I was in towards the end of last year. I realised something in my life had to give in order for me to recover from chronic stress. I felt I was never getting a break from other people’s demands. I’d check my phone and there would be a full screen of notifications. Instead of feeling gratified that people wanted to communicate with me, I had begun to feel angry at them. So at the start of last November I decided to switch off, intending initially to do it for a month – but I haven’t gone back yet. I’m happier and calmer, and the initial Candy Crush-shaped void in my life has been filled with other things.
There are some downsides to being a neo-Luddite. Life requires more planning. I can’t use the satnav app if I get lost – I need to plan my route. I’ve not been able to use my mobile parking app, and had to leg it to the newsagents to change a tenner while praying there weren’t any lurking traffic wardens. And although arguably I am a better real-life friend, I’m now a terrible cyberfriend. I’ve missed first scan photos and engagement announcements over the past couple of months, particularly among my more far-flung friends, because social media is the way things come out these days, and I no longer check it every day, let alone every couple of hours like I used to.
Ridicule aside, I have no plans to resume my smartphone addiction. I now feel as if I control my use of virtual communication. I engage with it on my terms, and if I come home from work and I’m too tired to do any more communicating, I no longer feel guilty or anxious if I don’t check anything. Although I might send the odd text while at work, I’m no longer engaging in under-the-desk Facebook checking or spending my breaks swapping one screen for another, so I’m a more focused and productive staff member.
Despite my amusingly archaic phone (people laugh when I pull my bright blue Nokia out), and the fact that I am more likely to be buried in a book these days than checking Facebook, I can always make time for a cute panda video. But please, don’t be too upset with me if I don’t congratulate you on reaching level 1,146,587 on Candy Crush.