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  • Writer's pictureMaxim Goohs

Mindful Living: Life Without a Smartphone


Have you ever been out with friends, only to find your conversation reverting to the hot-button issues of our day, one of these issues almost always being the impact of social media and other smartphone-supported technology on society? And while some of your friends play devil’s advocate (maybe even you do!), the general consensus usually comes out the same – social media and smartphones bring more harm than good into this world. And even after all this, do you still find yourself lying in bed at night, scrolling through your phone once more? Glued to that phone you inherently know is not good for your mental health.

In the sitcom Bojack Horseman, a character named Todd determines to throw a “sophisticated, adult party” for his visiting parents – the issue being that Todd is neither sophisticated nor truly an adult. Undeterred, Todd devises a plan to hire a bunch of LA actors and rent out expensive furniture, believing that such a feigned production may fool his parents. In typical Todd fashion, he even writes lines for the hired actors, citing these as “elegant phrases that adults say all the time.” While most of the phrases only offered me a quick chuckle, there was one that caught my attention:


“I’m starting to think that smartphones are actually making us less connected.”


At first sight, this line might be considered a humorful jab at the elitism of certain “sophisticated, adults.” Even though American society has always scoffed at the noblesse oblige of our British counterparts, there has remained certain sects who look down upon those perceived less cultured. If Todd had asked the payed actors to make some quip about the effects of Tik Tok on concentration or the impact of reality television on the nuclear family, one could assume Todd was hinting at this classism. But such a straightforward reading neglects a simple truth: sophisticated adults also use smartphones.

Instead, the humor of this phrase is rooted in banality – everyone knows that smartphones are actually making us less connected! You would be hard to find someone who doesn’t admit to the negative effects social media plays on our society. Countless studies have pointed to the detrimental impacts of smartphones and other connective technologies on American culture. Todd’s comment does not highlight the elitist views of certain “sophisticated adults,” but the irony of such views. Even though these well-educated elites may think themselves wise for such a “profound” insight, these views not only are common amongst most Americans, but also fail to recognize the reality – almost everyone, regardless of status, is addicted to their smartphone.

The point of this blog is not to highlight all the ways smartphones negatively impact our mental health. To do so would not only be redundant, but also unimpactful. Instead, this blog looks at another question: if everyone knows how detrimental smartphones are, why do so few people take steps against them?

 

When asked what goes through his head during a race, a famous Olympic rower cited the same two self-posed questions: 1) Why am I doing this? 2) Can I do this? The Olympian explained that without a good answer to both of these, he would be unwilling to tolerate the immense pain inherent to a rowing sprint. For example, if he did not have a clear reason for putting himself under such distress (such as the desire for a medal) or if he thought at any point that winning was unreachable, he would ultimately give up mid-race. In other words, without purpose or self-efficacy beliefs, he was unwilling to suffer.

For many people, the first question as it relates to smartphones is being answered more affirmatively than ever before. Be it the bullying, increased isolation, or generalized addiction, more and more people are beginning to recognize how smartphones impair their well-being. I have talked to countless individuals who cite a fear of “life passing them by,” claiming their phones to be a driving factor in this fear. If asked whether or not they have a reason to get rid of their smartphones, many individuals would not only provide one, but quote a laundry-list. However, the issue does not lie in the first question…it lies in the second.

 

The other day I was talking with a co-worker about his nine year old daughter. Always curious about how child-rearing has altered since my own childhood, I inquired about whether or not she has a phone yet. Although my co-worker admitted that smartphones have detrimental impacts on a young child’s concentration and self-image, he explained that it was impossible not to give his daughter a phone. For to do so would isolate her from all her friends; by not having a phone, his daughter would be left out of group-messages, snap-chats, and other means of connecting with her peers. Thus, even though my co-worker railed against the negative effects of technology on the youth, he saw it as not only implausible, but even cruel to deny his nine year old daughter a smartphone.

Whenever I suggest to a friend that they get rid of their smartphone, I am always given the same response; something along the lines of, “I would love to, but I just can’t.” They often treat the idea of getting rid of their phone as comparable to someone in the suburbs getting rid of their car. While it might be nice in theory, it’s far from practical. Similar to the way that American cities are constructed around the automobile, American culture is increasingly constructed around the smartphone.

 

Say you’re single and looking for a partner. How do you meet someone without Hinge or Tinder? Bumble or OkCupid? And once you do match, of course you need to google everything about them beforehand. Imagine if people had no social media to stalk, no Linkedin to verify? At least you can share your location with friends in case their follower/following ratio does end up indicating axe-murder vibes like you feared. And then there’s actually getting to the date. How would you go anywhere without Lyft or Uber? Even if you do have a car, what would you do without Google Maps or Waze? Not to mention arriving at the restaurant to find that the menu is no longer a piece of laminated paper but instead a barcode. Do you just order a cheeseburger because they’re bound to have that? Or do you politely ask your date whether you can peer over their shoulder and quickly take a gander at their screen? And let’s not even consider whether they ask you to Venmo them for half the bill. One can only imagine the face they’ll give when you pull out a dusty checkbook!

We live in a culture that constantly tells us smartphones are essential. To not have a smartphone is comparable to living under a proverbial rock. Not only do we see smartphones necessitated by dating and socializing, but also by work itself. Just last month my friend revealed that she now has to bring her phone to work (something she had stopped doing as a means to better focus) because her boss refuses to walk into her office anymore, opting instead for the instantaneous communication of Slack.

Every aspect of society tells us that life is impossible without a smartphone. So even though we may be able to positively answer the first question, listing the reasons we should get rid of them, our inability to answer the second makes such a change impossible. Thus, while the idea of removing a smartphone from our lives sounds pleasant, it continues to remain just that – an idea. Never a reality. As long as we think life unlivable without an $1000 gadget constantly in our pocket, we will never rid ourselves of it. We will continue to be those “sophisticated adults,” meandering around a dinner party, talking about how smartphones are killing the world while secretly waiting to check how many re-tweets our lasted post received.

 

So where is the hope? It’s actually quite simple. The hope of seeing real change and real connectivity in our society lies in debunking the second question. How do I know that one can live successfully without a smartphone? Because I have never had one.

What started off as a way of differentiating myself from others in high school, ultimately turned into a saving grace. I admit that not having a smartphone has it’s occasional setbacks. Do I dislike having to print out directions when driving somewhere new? Yes. Do I feel cut-off from a large sect of the dating pool? Certainly. Have I ever had someone get angry at my for not being able to Venmo them back after sharing a meal? Definitely. These are all problems unavoidable to the dumb-phone life. But while these set-backs do come up now and again, the benefits from not having a smartphone have been overwhelming. I could list them all, but again, we all know what they are.

 

The main fear people have about giving up their smartphone is that it would make their lives unmanageable. Although this fear has some validity, may I suggest that it’s no more than a strawman meant to keep us complacent within modern society. Life is not only manageable without a smartphone, it is freer. The amount of books I have read, conversations I have had, challenges I have overcome, and power I have discovered are directly related to not having a smartphone. Yes, using a flip phone has brought difficulty into my life. But it is this difficulty that has made my life most worth living. For when we distract ourselves with phones, we prevent ourselves from confronting our struggles. And it only through this confrontation that we make meaning of our lives and uncover the beauty inherent to everyday monotony.

Yes, we can all agree that smartphones are actually making us less connected. But I am here to say that they don’t have to. I have always been taught to doubt the fear and trust the joy. And believe me when I say this: your life is full of joy. You just have to put down the screen.


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