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I Went Phone-Free For A Month. It Was Purgatory


I think “conceptual artist” is the trendy new replacement term for “philosopher.” Anyway, one of those has announced he’s going to try to live “without a digital footprint” for six months. Well, that’s impossible, because Mark Farid still has a bank account, and whatever they use in the United Kingdom that approximates a Social Security number, etc. What’s more, England is a literal surveillance state, with government cameras in every nook and cranny. So digital information will continue to be collected about Mark Farid. He’s just going to try to emit as little as possible on purpose.

By accident, I conducted a milder version of his experiment in the last month, when my four-month-old smartphone eeped its last and I had to wrangle with my cell provider and warranty company and phone manufacturer and phone seller and phone fixer…without a phone. As you might imagine, it’s really hard to call all these people when you Don’t. Have. A. Phone.

In my house, like 40 percent of the nation, we have no land line, and my husband is gone with his more than every business hour of every day except Fridays, when I am in class with our eldest child all morning. He could have left it with me, but he drives an hour and a half one way to graduate school every day, so I don’t like him being phoneless.

The Seven Circles of Cell Store Hell

So the only business-hour phone time available to me without my own phone was Friday afternoons. And have you ever been told one thing about some cell phone doohickey that turned out to be wrong, requiring you to call three more people to find out another thing that you hope to God is the actually true thing? I swear, phone companies operate within the fifth circle of hell, and they try to drag you down there, too, every time you call.

Phone companies operate within the fifth circle of hell, and they try to drag you down there, too, every time you call.

I even visited the cell phone store THREE TIMES in person, trailing my army of four midgets ages five and younger. If none of you have ever attempted that, you cannot understand the two hours of misery one visit to the phone store inflicts upon a young lady who has somehow managed to pop out, in five years, one tiny child for each limb of her body. It takes at least an hour of prep to get us all into the car, fed, and diapered, and with enough supplies to help us survive the trek out and back.

Thank God nobody got squashed in the parking lot, and nobody smashed five thousand dollars worth of shiny cell-phone-store equipment, because those stores don’t have carts to lock the children into. Why did I visit the store three times, you might ask? Well, once to have a very kind friend’s former phone swapped into my phone line, because who wants to shell out $200 every four months for a new phone that dies as soon as the warranty upchucks? Turns out, for some technical reason I cannot explain because I do not understand, the phone wouldn’t convert. Must have needed a Dark Archon.

The second visit was with a brand-new phone I had finally pried open my Scroogey pockets to buy, after and only after much suffering in the phone-less circle of hell. Well, that time they didn’t have the right SIM card. In the cell-phone man’s defense, he did look very sorry to have to announce that to me. It must have been the peanut butter smeared into my hair. Or the toddler brightly eyeing his merchandise.

Besides That, It Was All Roses

This was supposed to be a far more tranquil article. Without the kids, having no cell phone for a month or getting a new one quickly would have been a piece of chocolate-studded chocolate cake.

When my phone died the day I headed out to Washington DC this fall, hanging my newborn from his pack on my chest, I was a little excited.

My parents forced me to get my first cell phone in college after they spent an entire day frantically calling my dorm phone to report a family emergency. Unlike the other college kids, for whom cell phones are only another version of crack, I disliked the thing. It felt like a tether. And it was.

So when my phone died the day I headed out to Washington DC this fall, I was a little excited. I’m a big girl. I can function without a brain replacement. Since I have lived in DC, I was comfortable enough with the city layout and transportation. And I didn’t miss my phone much, except when I wanted to send my husband a cute picture of the sleeping baby or to check in at work and make sure nothing had blown up while I went dark for a few hours.

Functioning screen-free is not that difficult for me because I grew up with strictly limited screen time. Granted, in my childhood the only thing to do was play the very old Oregon Trail on Windows 95. Ours didn’t even have color like this screenshot.


We did have television. An old television with rabbit ears that only got the three local channels if you fiddled with the ears and—I’m not making this up—wrapped the antennae in tinfoil and sometimes augmented them with a butter knife. Not only was our TV shabby, our parents only rarely let us watch it. That’s pretty amazing, considering that my mom had even more kids than I do and must have felt an even deeper need for the e-babysitter.

The Overconnected Disconnect

Like my parents, I don’t use screens on my kids, but the research done in those intervening years shows that my parents’ instincts, which is mostly but not completely what they had to go on, were excellent. Although our screen addictions may seem less troublesome than our other addictions, our society is comprised of addicts nonetheless, and it’s bad for us.

The habits we practice are encoded into our brain. They become a physical part of us.

You can see it in conversations with people. While I was in DC spending time with people I’d either never met or not seen in a year, I noticed the social-media effect. People always drift in and out of conversations at parties, but they’re doing it faster now. It makes the conversation far less satisfying. That, in turn, leads them to check their smartphones more, which accelerates the dissatisfaction and gradually attenuates our live conversation skills. It’s a vicious cycle. The people who don’t do it stick out.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls this phenomenon “Alone Together,” the title of her 2012 book. Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits,” she writes. “As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster [and, I’ll add, snappier] answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions…During the years I have spent researching people and their relationships with technology, I have often heard the sentiment ‘No one is listening to me.'”

The habits we practice are encoded into our brain. They become a physical part of us. That physicality, in turn, affects our brains, in a constantly deepening loop. What we do with our bodies has big effects on our brains, most especially when we’re young. Children that do not play with blocks and tumble about in leaf piles enough develop mental problems as a result of their physical underdevelopment. And the pick up their media habits from their parents’ examples.

Because of my parents’ brain training, as an adult I find it not mentally strenuous, and in fact rather a mental relief, to close the computer or ignore the phone all weekend—or all month, as the case may be. I thank my parents for wisely training my neurons and synapses when my brain was so young and developing, as it’s giving me a lifetime of benefits. Surely my mother would have gotten temporary benefits from allowing us to veg out more often. But she gave me lifetime benefits by sacrificing her own comfort day in and day out. Isn’t that what mothers do?

How Fear of Missing Out Makes You Miss Out

While I felt this frequent little nagging worry about the terror that awaited each time I opened my computer to check what a more-present cell phone had not more quickly revealed, nothing bad ever happened while I was smartphone-less. The unbroken trains of quiet thought were actually really refreshing, especially given my dearth of uninterrupted thought at this season in life. I also savored the inability of other people to interrupt me whenever they felt like it. Phonelessness was no crisis.

While you indulge your fears inside your head, they come true right before your eyes.

I realized phones can do that to you, make you feel like a rude tweet from some random dude you will never meet is an epic moment in your life. While you stress out about that, or whether people at work are wondering where the heck you’ve been for an hour, you are very likely so stuck inside your head or cyberspace you can’t see the little eyes right in front of you, glinting at all the shinies inside this sweet cell phone store.

In other words, the phantom fear of missing out actually can cause you to miss out. While you indulge your fears inside your head, they come true right before your unseeing eyes. Because of those fears, your eyes can’t see their fulfillment.

You will feel that emptiness later, when you stop looking at all the contrived pictures of everyone else’s social-mediaized personas and think, “Where are my cute kids smiling with cocoa-smeared faces emerging from the necks of their footie pajamas?” Ah, that moment didn’t happen, or you didn’t see it, because you were looking at other people’s footie-pajamaed, bed-headed kids.

I’m not a Luddite, or a Wendell Berryite. Phones are merely tools; this reads like an anti-phone screed because our society needs more caution on this issue, not less. If we were all deliberately ignoring phones we knew were ringing to bring us news of a brother in a car crash, then it would be time to write articles commanding people to pick up their phones. But those are not necessary. We like our phones too much, not too little.

Not always, but too often, my phone is a shield against becoming a better person.

When I finally got a new phone, I felt like squealing. Now I could argue during business hours with all my favorite health-care companies about these duplicate hospital bills with two-week deadlines. Woohoo! Also, it no longer had to take me five minutes to dig out the camera from under the crumb-crusted couch, by which time the kids had stopped doing whatever cute thing and recommenced screaming. I could also keep up with breaking news in an attempt to maintain sanity while waiting the screaming out. So that’s great.

Also, I can text my husband sarcasm-soaked comments all day long to fulfill yet another child-coping strategy. Not sure if anyone notices a pattern here. I do. It’s avoidance. Not being brave enough to face yet another thirty seconds of screaming in a scream-filled day, brave enough to do my real job, which is to help the screamer learn some self control. Not always, but too often, my phone is a shield against becoming a better person. When that happens, it’s my job to take my finger off the screen and step away. For the children’s sake, yes, and for the sake of all those nearby who deserve the love that undivided attention signals with no need for wires.