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Smartphone detox - one year later

(Published by Beijingkids magazine, 1 May 2018)

When I wake up on day one, the first thing I think about is my phone. I have strategically placed it in my handbag the night before in order to avoid temptation. I am met with scepticism when I remind my children that today is the start of my smartphone detox and that it is useless to write to me or call me on WeChat this week. I go for a walk and realise that I hadn’t left my phone completely untouched for hours in a very long time. I feel relieved that I don’t have to reply to any messages. But by the late afternoon, I am dying to know how people have reacted to my WeChat and Facebook posts about my smartphone detox, which I posted shortly before going off-line. I will only know in seven whole, long days.

A year ago, I switched off my smartphone for one week in an attempt to test my addiction and to see if a smartphone free life would bring my family closer together.

I was the kind of smartphone user that would check my phone even before the alarm clock went off in the morning. A few hours earlier, I would have fallen asleep to the bright, blue light from the phone screen (the light that suppresses melatonin and makes your brain mix up day and night). I wouldn’t go anywhere without my phone and always kept it within arm’s reach.

I would tell my teenage kids that they spent way too much time on their devices - after which I would sneak into another room and check social media messages again. A little bit like when I used to forbid them to drink coke and then I’d hide behind the refrigerator door and have a sip.

Hanging up on bad habits

Yes, mothers are only humans – and although I wasn’t too proud of my sneaky behavior, I do try to be mindful of my smartphone use in front of other people.

You’ll often see me rolling my eyes if a group of people are all on their phones while they are supposedly out for a social gathering. I feel sad when I see a child eating alone while his or her parents are on their phones - and my poor husband can barely even think about glancing at his phone at the dinner table before I turn into a growling Rottweiler.

Smartphone etiquette is something I’ve felt strongly about ever since I read James P. Steyer’s “Talking back to Facebook - a common sense guide to raising kids in the digital age”. But although I like to see myself as a conscious smartphone user (when interacting with other people), I wanted to find out whether I could live without my phone for a week and what effect a smartphone-free life would have on my family life, social life and everyday life.

I switched off my smart phone on a Friday morning in April 2017– or at least anything that is smart about it. I could still make and receive calls but that was it. No 3G, no wifi, no social media, no maps, no apps. It was for only for a week. Seven days. If you find yourself thinking how hard can it be?, that is completely normal. When I spoke to friends about my plan to be off the grid for a week, some of the people who know me best were convinced that I would give in mid-week. Some said they would never be able to live without their phone while others said that for them, it would not be an issue at all to be smartphone free for a week – or even longer.

The experiment

During my detox week, I realised just how much I had relied on my smartphone ever since I got my first one – a blackberry – back in 2008. And looking back at my diary from the detox week, I was almost ready to give up by the morning of day one. The first practical hurdle arrived on day two when we held a yard sale and several people wanted to pay by WeChat. But already by the end of day two, a peaceful feeling descended upon me and I was particularly relieved that I didn’t have to reply to any messages. As the days went by, I became more and more used to the phone being tucked away in my bag. Yes, there were things I missed – such as taking pictures, receiving WeChat pins, using maps, shopping on Taobao and especially documenting my life in China on social media. I also had moments of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) but it is safe to say that the pros outweighed the cons. My writer’s flow was great, I was able to do all my Chinese homework, I enjoyed every single undisturbed moment and most importantly: my family had my undivided attention.

The conclusion I drew after my one-week detox was that, to my great relief, I might not be suffering from nomophobia (NoMo(bile)phobia) after all. But at the same time, I had to conclude that a smartphone-free life (especially when living in China) is perhaps not realistic.

One year later

In the weeks following the detox, my motivation to continue down the right path was sky high. I managed to leave my phone untouched for ages (meaning up to two hours) and I recommended a smartphone detox to everyone I came across. I even considered organizing talks about smartphone addiction – a topic I had, by now, done quite a lot of research on.

But alas, old habits die hard. Despite my efforts and a newfound serenity, I somehow started slipping back into my old, bad habits. My phone made its way back to my nightstand and I started checking it even before the alarm clock goes off in the morning. I tend to fall asleep to the bright, blue light from the phone screen (you know the light that suppresses melatonin and makes your brain mix up day and night) - and rarely go anywhere without my phone – which I keep within arm’s reach.

However disappointed I am in myself and my inability to practice what I preach, I continue to believe in the benefits of a smartphone detox. Apart from the advantages of feeling less stressed and giving family and friends my undivided attention, my smartphone-free week offered me the possibility to reflect on what role this neat piece of technology plays in my life. For better and for worse. My smartphone is my communication hub. It is my number one time-eater, my promotion channel, my constant bad conscience and quite often my problem solver. My research on the topics of addiction to electronic devices and smartphone etiquette continues and in an attempt to reach an acceptable level of smartphone use and to hopefully inspire others (not least my children), the concrete step I am taking today is to re-install the app moment which monitors your smartphone screen time. You would honestly be surprised.

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