Students

Surviving without a smartphone

The Texting Dead

Puck is a smombie. Even when she’s at the cinema, she checks her social media accounts every fifteen minutes. But a digital detox allows her to get away from herself. Just for a little while.
By Puck Swarte / Illustration René Lapoutre

Puck’s smartphone use before detox

‘We’re making great headway on those deep conversations, aren’t we?’ I sarcastically say to my boyfriend.

On the couch, he nods vaguely. ‘Uh huh.’

‘I mean… The students in Schitzler’s book noticed immediately’, I continue. ‘They were able to focus better and were more aware of their surroundings on the second day already.’

He nods again. ‘Uh huh.’

‘Anne said she felt liberated when she went to a concert. Instead of taking pictures, she actually listened.’ I open up the book next to me: ‘As far as Anne, Arne, Stijn, and Sophie were concerned, their Snapchatless reality was much more valuable. It made them feel more intensely and get more out of life’, I quote. ‘And…’

I fall silent as he sticks his hand in his pocket, removes his cell phone and swipes the screen. ‘Aw yeah, Ajax won two to one! Erm. Sorry. You were saying?’

I smile sweetly at him. ‘Never mind.’

I’m in the middle of a digital detox. I promised myself I wouldn’t use my smartphone for a week. I’m not allowed to send messages, call people, or check Facebook. My goal is to live more in the now and to be more focused. I also want to find out how bad my smartphone addiction actually is.

Disconcerting picture

I didn’t come up with this idea myself; I got it from the book Kleine Filosofie van de digitale onthouding (The Little Philosophical Book of Digital Detox), by publicist Hans Schnitzler. He wrote a philosophical treatise on his experience with students he had made digitally detox for a week. The book paints a disconcerting picture of what modern smartphone users go through.

‘Just what I need’, I thought when I read it. I may get extremely annoyed when yet another person takes it upon themselves to tell me how bad my smartphone use is, I do secretly get a little jealous whenever someone does manage to escape their digital addiction.

Because I am certainly addicted. You wouldn’t be wrong in calling me a smombie. The application Moments, which measures my smartphone use, tells me I spend at least five hours, sometimes even nine – oops. Watching a show on my laptop isn’t enough for me. I also have to play Candy Crush on my phone, and even at the cinema I quickly check it every fifteen minutes.

Schnitzler’s students say that their lives became ‘more real’ and ‘purer’. Some even managed to rid themselves of social media altogether. So… might there be hope for me?

Paradise

After five days without my smartphone, I don’t feel like I’m in paradise quite yet. On the contrary, life without a smartphone is a hassle. I’m bereft of basic needs: ‘How do I set an alarm to wake up? I need my planner, but it’s on my phone.’ My environment isn’t cooperating, either.

I won’t be splurging on any Christmas gifts this year, because I missed the WhatsApp message telling me to hand in my invoices in time.

My social life has become complicated as well. I waited for my friends in front of the cinema for fifteen minutes – I had no idea where they were. Inside? Stuck in traffic? Did they forget to come?

Puck’s smartphone use right after detox

It’s also difficult to start any in-depth conversations with people when they’re all stuck in their technological bubbles.

And yet… I am more productive, and I’m feeling less stressed out. Studying at the library is going much better. I’ve tried turning my phone off, but I’m so fixated on it that I would have continuously suppress the urge to turn it back on. All that is suddenly gone.

After a week of quiet, I’m kind of hesitant to turn my phone back on. One press of the button might confront me with myself again.

And it does.

Fear

The first day isn’t so bad. I spend an hour using my phone. But already the next day I’m spending more time with it. After five days, I’m right back where I started. It’s a shame. Was the whole experiment for nothing? Am I a lost cause?

I decide to call Schnitzler himself. Maybe my fear is an overreaction. However, I am dismayed to find out that he shares my sombre outlook. ‘Fear is not the right word. Fear isn’t a rational emotion. But I am critical, and I’m worried. The way social media is developing depends on the revenue model. The companies that make them are only interested in our data and our information. It’s the new oil. They want us glued to our screens for as long as possible. But that has some problematic side effects.’

And there are other dangers, Schnitzler warns. ‘Technology is becoming increasingly intimate, fusing with our bodies.’ He is alluding to Google, which is designing a lens that people can wear on their eyes. ‘Is that something we should want, though? We need to keep talking about what we should and shouldn’t want, lest we become half man, half machine.’

As addictive as possible

He feels the government should be protecting us from this. They should warn and inform people, the way they currently do when it comes to smoking or gambling addictions: ‘Even the industry itself is telling us they are trying to make their products as addictive as possible, so I think it’s only logical that the government should intervene.’

Okay, but what am I supposed to do? In spite of all the things I learned and experienced, I’m still glued to my phone. But Schnitzler thinks this a valuable insight regardless: ‘I think it’s really important to share these types of observations. It could lead to really interesting discussions.’

He says the solution can be found in these discussions, in a dialogue. Here, finally, is a glimmer of optimism. ‘It is a hot topic in today’s society, also because of the potential influence on children and adolescents. I always say: Dare to despair. When you despair, you can change.’

Hmmm.

So here I am, full of insights. I know it’s a sorry state of affairs. Both for me and for my fellow students. I’m spending as much time on phone as before, and I’m ignoring my discomfort about it as much as before.

But: two friends of mine noticed what I was doing and went on a detox of their own. Maybe two of their friends will do the same. And even if we all go back to being smartphone zombies, perhaps the awareness we’ve gained is enough to stop us from turning into robots anytime soon.

Nederlands