Flip my Phone, Change my Life

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As you may have read, I’ve relegated my iPhone into semi-retirement, only using it when I am connected to wifi, so essentially, at home or as I pop into Starbucks. At work, in the car, out and about, or hanging with friends, I’m armed with my Alcatel GO FLIP phone, which the lads at the Bell store threw in for free with my $29/month talk and text plan. It was all very easy, aside from the technology being ill-equipped to transfer my iPhone contacts to my new “Address Book” and having to half-halfheartedly joke that I was interested only in simplifying my life, not pushing drugs.

It’s been an illuminating experience so far, with the most notable observation being that, before the switch, I suspect I was edging on an addiction to my smartphone. I realized that I would scroll mindlessly, only stopping once I registered that I had seen this post earlier in the day. Because, God forbid I failed to Like a single photo of someone else’s child the moment one was posted. My phone was on my desk at work, in my line of vision, so that I could respond immediately should a notification come in, so really, there was no reprieve from screen time, and I felt a near-constant impulse to stay in the loop.

At work, screen time is unavoidable. We need to use our computers and be connected in order to carry out the functions of our jobs. And many of us are good about taking regular breaks from our desks to stretch our legs and give our eyes and brains a break. But what do we so often do when we take a break from the computer? My guess is to turn directly to our phones to see what we missed.

So, there is no break.

I would argue that our reliance upon our devices makes us feel more overextended in our lives than we actually are. Finding the work-life balance that is right for us and our families is already a work in progress, yet we allow ever more distractions into our personal lives that interfere with our ability to be present.

When we interrupt an in-person conversation with someone to address a notification from our device, we throw ourselves into a state of limbo. We have plucked ourselves out of the real world, that particular human dynamic, full of non-verbal cues, gestures, and nuanced expression, in order to attend to the digital world. But we are not fully in that world either, apologizing for answering the call or text and feeling guilty for not giving our companion our full attention, we might rush through the digital exchange. We don’t get ahead either way. Once we finish with our device, we have to reset the human interaction with a version of “okay, sorry, what were you saying?” effectively hindering the flow and chemistry of the conversation. Do we ever fully return our undivided attention to our companion, or is half our brain still scanning the digital world for information? There is no rest for the screen-stimulated brain.

The more we allow our device to control our attention, the more we feel like we are missing out on something, and this is certainly not a feeling we welcome. Aside from life-and-death emergencies, and other such situations where we require instantaneous feedback, the information will be there whether we address our device every ten minutes, every hour, or once a day. When we get in the habit of requiring constant stimulation, we may never feel like we have fully decompressed and refueled the tank. If our brain does not differentiate between types of screen time, are we really striking the work-life balance we think we are? We may be away from our desks, but our brains are still very much at work processing information from a screen.

So what started as tossing my smartphone to reduce my monthly cell phone bill, has evolved into a kind of vacation of the mind. My flip phone is no frills by definition: numbered keypad, capped talk and text, and no front facing camera- may my unborn selfies rest in peace. And guess what? I no longer feel the same itch to check my device for notifications. I decide when I check it, and attend to that information when I have a moment. I feel less attached to the social media world and feel a diminished need to scroll mindlessly through apps when I do have internet access at home. I use my phone to confirm plans but avoid long-winded texting conversations for the most part– mostly because texting on the number pad is far too time consuming. I feel more rested, present, and would you believe that, the other night, I read a book in its entirety without once interrupting myself by checking my phone. And I say interrupting myself because I have a renewed sense of choice when it comes to tuning into and out of the digital world.

What is it that we are so afraid of missing out on? Does anyone actually feel better after a deep creep? What “they” are doing out there is not where life is. Life is taking place right here, between your ears, in front of your eyes and in your hands. We should be looking up from our screens once in a while and join in.

Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.