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How Can I Live a More Phone-Free Life?

Illustration: Elena Scotti/Photos: Getty Images
Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

It is the rare person who—logging off after a long day’s scrolling—thinks, “I need much more of that in my life.” Because the thing about the internet is, it’s awful. Even the good parts suck, because the good parts are swirled in with the bad—you can’t access one without wading through the other. Often, the good parts are just jokes about the bad parts, jokes that would make no sense if you hadn’t already—for no reason at all—exposed yourself to worthless and/or infuriating content. Which is all to say that it’s time to break the cycle—and for this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve enlisted a number of experts to help us do exactly that.

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Eric Loucks

Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Behavioral and Social Sciences, and Medicine at Brown University

Humans are skilled at inventing and using tools. Think of the technology of a fish hook and a line. They have been revolutionary to help us feed our families. Digital technology is more recently developed than a fish hook. As with any tools developed throughout history, we keep those that help us, and let go of those that don’t. How can we determine if a particular digital tool helps? Well, with mindful awareness of our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, we can ask in a curious nonjudgmental way, “Is this digital tool helping in this moment more than anything else I can do?” If so, great. Continue using it. If not, let it go, and move onto the next-highest priority action to take care of yourself and others.

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Judson Brewer

Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University

If we don’t know how our minds work, how can we possibly work with them? When my patients come into my office, the first thing I try to determine is how well they know their own minds. If they don’t have a clue, I start there. It’s important to help people understand how we form habits around social media, and it’s not actually that complicated.

There are three elements to reward-based learning. First, there’s the trigger: boredom, for instance. Second, there’s the behavior that’s triggered: in this case, going on social media. Third is the reward: nine times out of ten, you log on and there’s nothing interesting there—but sometimes you hit the jackpot, and there’s something new and compelling, and your brain just spritzes dopamine and says: oh, do that again, do that again! Another trigger is anxiety—you check social media because you’re anxious, and the behavior distracts you from that unpleasant feeling (this would be the reward). Your brain learns to go to that again the next time you’re anxious.

Social media is designed to exploit this pattern; its platforms are engineered to be as addictive as possible. It’s important to help people understand that these people are capitalizing on (and at the extreme end, weaponizing) our brain’s survival mechanisms.

Once we understand this process, we can start to tap into our brain’s reward-based learning system to find what I call the BBO: the Bigger Better Offer. The only way our brain is going to stop doing something is if we give it something more rewarding. One way to do this is to help people see clearly how unrewarding the old behavior is—it might provide a quick hit of relief, but ultimately it’s making things worse. We try to help them pay attention to what it feels like when they’re engaging in a more rewarding behavior—when they’re focusing, for instance—and get them to compare those two feelings in their brain. When they have the option to check social media, or to procrastinate in some other way, they just reflect back on what it was like the last time they did those things, and compare it to what it was like the last time they turned off all their alerts and just focused. And their brain realizes it just feels better to focus.

As they pay attention, they see how their mind works, and they see how rewarding it feels to take a break from technology. The idea where people just force themselves to take a break from these things via willpower is ridiculous—it’s not built on neuroscience. This is a concept that’s perpetuated by the proverbial Weight Watchers of the world, because they want people to think, “I’m not strong enough, I need to stay in your program longer.” That’s not how our brains work. As we go through the day, our willpower depletes, and it becomes harder to resist these urges. Reward-based learning is the strongest part of your brain, and can help you change your behavior.

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Diana Winston

Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness

These days it’s pretty near impossible to live a tech free life. However, mindfulness can be used to minimize the excessive, and at times unhealthy, use of tech. I’ll focus on the moments when we turn to technology to fill up time because we’re uncomfortable without stimulation.

For instance, many of us, in the moments we are bored, waiting for something, and in all the “in between” times, turn to our phones. We have lost the art of being bored or uncomfortable, which is actually quite a creative place if we are willing to stay present in it. With mindfulness we can notice those moments of discomfort, feel the impulse to pick up the phone, read the news, scroll through our social media feed, etc., and take a pause, take a breath, notice the impulse, but not act on it. We can learn to be ok even amid the discomfort and turn attention to our real time lives. How am I feeling right now, what sights or sounds are around me? What else could I do other than jump on the phone? Or just take a calming breath and connect with life.

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Elissa Epel

Professor and Vice Chair, Psychiatry, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

Just do it. Leave it behind several times a day. Leave the part of your extended mind, that “phone” you’ve become dependent on, in a different room, or drawer. I am fully addicted to my phone, I often can “feel” where it is, and if I can’t, I become obsessed with finding it.

The compulsiveness is the problem—how often we check it—because we fragment our attention. We burden our ability to be present in space and time with people. There are good reasons for our becoming dependent on it, especially when we are responsible to other people or family. But in the end it still does have a tax on our attention and hinder our well being.

In our studies of daily stress, we find that when people report feeling engaged in what they are doing, they are happier. They are in a better mood. When we feel stressed out by something that happened that day, it’s harder to become engaged in whatever you are doing, being present to your presence. So we are more likely to choose a screen.

There is natural competition between screen time and healthier activities. Now that we are spending more time at home, I have had the experience of taking a yoga class, with my phone near me. Soon it ended up on my yoga mat. No classmates or teachers to help me keep boundaries. And the rest is history. I barely remember taking the class.

Multi-tasking doesn’t really happen, we can’t do two things at once. It’s more like a fragmentation of our experience. Having sensible rules helps—have a shorter work day—pandemic hours of work are more draining. Turn off the computer for the day as early in the afternoon or evening as you can. No phones at the dinner table, while exercising, or before bedtime. These boundaries will help those of you who are addicted like me. Then there is advanced practice, like abandoning it for a day or longer. I am still working on that.

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DISCUSSION

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Duke of Kent

The first response touched on the root of the issue: The internet (and social media) is a tool. Tools can be used for productive purposes. They can also be used destructively to hurt others. And they can also cause unintended problems to the user depending upon how they are used (or misused).

Used correctly, a good kitchen knife is a powerful culinary tool. A chef who is prone to accidentally cutting himself shouldn’t be asking: “How can I cook without using a knife?” but rather “How can I use this knife more safely?”

The internet (and social media) is similar. It can be used to find interesting information and to solve problems but it can also be used to find infuriating information and to create problems. The difference is in how it’s chosen to be used.

I’m somewhat baffled when I read people complain about social media being “evil” because it is infinitely customizable. There’s no positive outcome associated with following toxic individuals or accounts — so unfollow them! Don’t go out of your way to be advertised to by following brands — instead, use the services as a way to connect with loved ones, to learn about topics that interest you, to broaden your horizons, to exchange ideas with those who you respect.

Use the tools available to you in ways that help you and enrich your experiences.