By Sarah Myers
When I finally decided to look at the Screen Time report my phone helpfully generates for me every week, the results were, to put it mildly, alarming. I was genuinely ashamed of how much time I had spent on my phone every day, to the point where I haven’t admitted what the specific number was even to my closest friends. Suffice it to say that it was more than three hours.
It’s not clear how atypical my problem is. Various studies have found that the average American adult spends between 1.6 and 5.4 hours on their phone every day. It’s difficult to know how accurate those results are. Asking people about total phone use or specific types of use leads to different answers. Not all phones have a built-in tool for measuring screen time. Regardless, it seems clear that phones are taking more and more of people’s time, with significant negative effects on our mental health and acuity.
I’ve certainly come to believe that my phone use has done serious damage to my ability to focus for long periods of time. A lot of my screen time is used for browsing social media, consuming individual posts for seconds at a time or less. The endless scrolling facilitated and even encouraged by social media apps has a bizarrely addictive, yet numbing effect on my mind. Even reading on my phone had become difficult, because the mental cue of using my phone put me in a mindset of super-fast attention switching and superficial processing. It didn’t help that new notifications constantly interrupted my reading.
My phone use heightens my stress while numbing me to that same stress. Constantly feeling my phone vibrating to indicate new emails; notifications from The New York Times and the Washington Post and messages via text, GroupMe, and Slack has left me constantly on edge. At the same time, endlessly scrolling through intellectually vacant social media streams keeps me enthralled and, at the same time, deeply bored.
After seeing my screen time statistics and watching perhaps a few too many high-energy episodes of Queer Eye, I decided to attempt to reduce my screen time by at least half. I ended up trying a lot of the silly-sounding tips for reducing one’s phone use. I deleted all of my “fun” apps and moved around everything that was left. I think that this actually helped — I realized on the second day that, without conscious thought, my hands automatically navigate to where my social media apps used to be whenever I felt bored or nervous. I also had to turn off notifications for pretty much everything except calls and texts in order to make progress. This created a pervasive sense of FOMO-adjacent anxiety for the first few days until I realized that I am not, in fact, important enough for it to matter whether I respond to emails within an hour or see breaking news headlines as they are published.
The first few days of reduced phone use felt deeply strange. My day felt much longer and more tiring. I was bored almost constantly. I felt strangely bereft, unable to see what was happening with random public figures whose social media accounts I had been following. I had to learn new routines for going to bed and waking up. It was genuinely difficult to unwind without boring myself to sleep on my phone or to wake up without bombarding myself with blue light and frightening headlines.
There were, however, a fair number of benefits. I suddenly had extra hours in the day. I finished two books that I’d been meaning to read for a year in the first week. After that, realizing that my mental associations between using my phone and goofing off were still very much alive, I decided to switch to paper books for the time being. I’m already becoming much more familiar with Green Library’s stacks. I finished my homework days and even weeks in advance — it’s much more difficult to procrastinate if you have nothing else to do. I drove 20 minutes to the nearest Wendy’s for a chocolate frosty (and was astonished at how far it was until I remembered that Stanford is in Palo Alto). I cleaned my bike, which was actually very satisfying. Being able to pump up my tires without coating my hands in dirt and grease was nice.
I also felt, by the end of the week, much calmer and in control than I have in a long time. Freeing up my time and attention allowed me to get ahead in my classes, take in the world around me and step outside of the cycle of fear and anger that today’s news cycle seems to inevitably engender.
Altogether, I reduced my screen time by just over 70%. I am hoping to make further reductions as time goes on, in part because I am aware of how delicate this achievement is. I am proud to have made it this far, but I can feel how easy it would be to end up right back where I started every time I instinctively reach for my phone. I am living and studying in the very heart of Silicon Valley, an industry built on making consumers dependent on technology. My goal seems laughably insignificant in this context.
So I suppose I’m recommending that you make a concerted effort to recognize how technology is affecting you and take action to change your behavior based on what’s important to you. At the same time, I think all of us need to recognize that this is a societal problem that cannot be solved by individual action alone. This is particularly true at Stanford, which has become a feeder school for Silicon Valley and uses its cozy connections with tech giants like Apple and Google to market itself to students.
Stanford profits from attention-stealing, addictive technology because Silicon Valley profits from that technology. Everyone involved in this cozy ecosystem seems happy to decry the negative effects of phone use (and go to extreme lengths to protect their own kids) while continuing to collect extraordinary profits. If Stanford truly sees itself as a non-profit institution dedicated to furthering the human good, it’s time for a serious reconsideration of our institutional relationship with these technologies.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.