About 2 billion people use smartphone across the globe, with more than half the population in developed countries relying on them daily. In fact, according to research by psychologists, we spend on average about five hours each a day doing so, flicking it on as many as 85 times.
I was one of those people, until a few weeks ago.
In my case, going smartphone-free was an accident. There I was doing the washing up, when one of my kids asked me a question about their homework. And as I tried to (surreptitiously) google the answer, I dropped my phone in the sink.
In the panic that followed, I did exactly what you’re not meant to do: I ripped it open, took out the battery – it was an older Samsung Galaxy model – dried it, then tried to turn the phone back on. But no joy, my smartphone was lost to the world. And for the first 24 hours or so I felt like that too.
However, six weeks on and I’ve still not replaced it.
Not yet, anyway. I am going to get a new smartphone. A decision mainly driven by the fear factor: what if the kids’ school can’t get hold of me? What if I get lost in the middle of nowhere without Google Maps? But my digital detox has made me rethink my relationship with my smartphone. Here’s what I’ve learned:
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I sleep better without it
It turns out that having a Twitter debate at bedtime is not soporific. Admittedly, this shouldn’t really have come as a surprise.
“Whenever someone likes or retweets you, it stimulates dopamine, the reward centre of your brain. It’s the same part of the brain that’s stimulated by smoking or recreational drugs,” says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, consultant neuropsychiatrist and medical director at the London Sleep Centre. He adds that smartphones (and other screen-based devices) adversely affect sleep by delaying or interrupting sleep time; stimulating the brain; and affecting sleep cycles and alertness. “You should never sleep with the phone next to you,” he says.
Others suggest it’s not all bad. Dr David Ellis, a lecturer in computational social science at Lancaster University says: “A lot of the research has relied on estimates of use that don’t consider exactly why people were using their smartphone. There is a big difference for example, between listening to music and replying to an email just before bedtime.”
However, I found it also made a difference not having my phone there at all, whether I was using it or not. A study by Kings College London and Cardiff University, which looked at children and screen usage, found that sleep can even be significantly disturbed by merely having access to the devices.
Being contactless is great
It sounds so trivial but simple things like walking the dog without getting a work call is very restful. While I miss the accessibility a smartphone gives, knowing that no call, text or email alert can interrupt me has cleared my head.
A break from the constant contact is good for most people’s wellbeing, according to Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, not least when it comes to social media. He points out that on our smartphone, we’re constantly bombarded with people sharing news about their job, relationship, holiday, presented in the best possible light. “Being exposed to only the best aspects of other people’s lives could lower self-esteem,” he says. Not having a smartphone certainly reduces how often we check.
Also read: Google now allows you to ‘search’ without internet.
Very few things are urgent
In the past six weeks there have been no work emails, texts or phones calls that I needed to respond to in the time I was cooking, going for a run, talking to my husband or reading my children a bedtime story. I’ve realised there is no need to respond like the emergency services every time a text comes in.
I’m spending less
I can’t claim that breaking my smart phone has been a get-rich-quick scheme. However, I did keep forgetting to do buy the groceries because I usually do it on my phone. It’s far easier to pop products into a virtual basket, as you go, on your smartphone than on a laptop and it does mean I tend to spend more.
I do too much cognitive off-loading
Without my smartphone – and I don’t own a tablet or iPad – I realised how Google dependent I am. According to a recent study, this may be affecting my thought processes for problem solving, recall and learning. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have found that ‘cognitive offloading’, or as they describe it the tendency to rely on things like the internet as an aide-memoire, increases after each use. In other words, the more we reach for our smartphones to tell us the answer, the more likely we are to do it again the next time.
In effect, we’re using the devices as extra memory, instead of retaining information ourselves, says Dr Lee Hadlington, cyber psychologist at De Montfort University. “When you use your phone to do anything from navigating to storing passwords for you, you’re transferring that information over, instead of keeping it in your own memory. We are remembering the way to get information not the information itself.”
On one level, I’m not sure it’s a problem. I can just ask Alexa and Google what I need to know, can’t I?
However, as I’ve discovered, devices do break and it’s good to have a back-up. Even when my new smartphone arrives, I’m going to try and use it a bit less. With some practice maybe I’ll be able to answer to those homework questions myself.
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