Everyone remembers their first cellphone. I bought mine ahead of being drafted. It was 2000, and I was afraid there would be long lines for the public phones in basic training camp – an idea that turned out to be foolish because everyone already had their own phones. I paid 59 agurot (about 15 cents, at the time) per each minute of use, but the device oppressed me far beyond having to deal with its outrageous monthly bill. When it was stolen one day, I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to pre-cell life for another year.
My whole cellular history is composed of coitus interruptus of this sort: buying a phone which then gets run over, managing without for a while, followed by getting a dumb phone and then a smartphone, and so on and so forth. I tried to live between the shadows. Toward the end of 2018, I gave in, permanently. I think it was navigating the streets that broke me: It became impossible to cruise around and keep asking people how to get to places. That social skill has become extinct. In 2020 I installed WhatsApp in my smartphone. Since then I’ve suffered even more.
I hate my smartphone. Hate it the way a guy in mid-life can hate 183 grams worth of plastic, various metals and semiconductors. I feel as though this rectangular black hole is swallowing everything that could be beautiful and good in my life. I’m not a heavy user, but that damn device is constantly plaguing my mind – like with someone who smokes just five cigarettes a day but never stops thinking about when and under what circumstances he’ll smoke the next one.
I am stunned each time anew at the speed with which this little piece of shit brings me to my knees and empties me of intellectual resources. There were times, or so it seems to me, at least, when I had such resources. I could sit on the train and simply think. But now, either I’m surfing or trying to keep myself from doing that.
Over the years I’ve imposed all sorts of constraints on myself. I have sabotaged the settings so the phone won’t work. I bought a notebook and a wristwatch. I sometimes tried leaving the house without the phone. I stubbornly used outmoded models that I scrounged from friends in order to minimize the temptation. I assumed a surfing curfew after 9 P.M., then from 8 P.M. I tried restrictions and filters of every type I could find. To paraphrase the singer Shlomo Artzi, I’m in flight mode without flying. But it doesn’t help.
Not long ago I came up with a new solution for my suffering: the smartwatch. Ostensibly this clever device is meant for hyper-tech types who want one more screen that injects messages and reminders intravenously. But it turns out that there are smartwatches that hook up directly to the cellular network via an electronic SIM that’s embedded in them (eSIM), by means of which you can make and receive calls. Why, I asked myself, why not buy a watch like that and leave the house with that instead of the phone? I wanted to discover whether you have to acquire this rather clumsy gadget, the smartwatch, to find salvation, or whether, on the contrary, even it doesn’t solve the problem of digital addiction. That question spawned the small journalistic project below. The rules were simple: I would live for two weeks with self-imposed cellphone constraints that get tougher every three days. Would I find my way out of the darkness?
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The smartphone problem is a worldwide phenomenon that is becoming ever more acute. The percentage of those agreeing with the statement “I waste too much time using my smartphone” rises as one descends the slope of the generations. Indeed, according to a 2019 survey conducted in the United States, 23 percent of Generation Z (born in 2000 and thereafter) think they overuse their phones, as compared to 22 percent of millennials (born in the last two decades of the 20th century), 16 percent of Gen X (mid-1960s to early 1980s) and 7 percent of Boomers (1946-1964). Studies show a surge of dozens of percentage points in smartphone use in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Swiss youth, for example, now report phone-surfing 6.5 hours a day on weekends, up from 4.5 hours in 2018.
But the world accepts the smartphone axiomatically, and the only advice you’re offered in order to cut back on its use merely dulls the sting of overuse a little. At least that seemed to be the prevailing spirit in many articles that appeared in recent years in the world’s leading newspapers. “How to use the smartphone a little less,” as a direct continuation of articles like “How to eat more chia seeds” and “How to exercise seven-minute breaks from your work on the computer.” One of the hottest suggestions in this genre at the moment is to deprive the phone’s display of its stunning colorfulness by switching it to what’s called a grayscale, which requires only a small adjustment of its settings.
This method is supported by a number of recent studies. Research published last June in the journal Current Psychology, involving 133 students, for example, found that those who switched to the grayscale for eight days enjoyed the phone less, used it less and along with that reported a decrease in their general feelings of anxiety. In another qualitative study, users reported that elimination of the colors was “boring” and “irritating,” though some testified that they felt “relieved” by the grayscale – as did I when using it. For a few hours I thought I had found the solution and that the next stages of the experiment would be superfluous.
But the anti-addiction effect passed quite quickly. I got used to the grayness and then went back to regular use, probing WhatsApp with trembling fingers to see whether I had received a new message, and perusing unnecessary articles in the washroom.
I imagine that this method is more useful for heavy users of visual materials – like Instagram addicts (I don’t do Instagram). The only thing that decreased for me was the habit of gazing at the photos of my kids on the phone; in contrast, they looked more attractive in real life, where they appeared in living color. But that’s marginal. There was no choice but to be stricter with myself.
“You are not addicted,” snorted Mark Griffiths disdainfully, in a phone conversation I had with the world-renowned expert on behavioral addiction, from Nottingham Trent University in England. “Well, the fact that you rang me up now as part of your job shows me that you are not addicted to your smartphone. If you’re addicted to gambling, if you are not gambling, you are thinking about ‘how can I get money to gamble’ – you’re totally preoccupied with this and you basically cannot function (and that’s not your case).”
In cases like mine, to the extent that they are even worthy of the term “cases,” the solutions are less drastic, Prof. Griffiths believes. “You can go to one of my blogs about digital detoxing... Instead of hearing a ping that tells you every time you have a notification, you can set your phone so that it will happen once an hour. That’s not a treatment program. That’s just common sense.”
I hate my smartphone. Hate it the way a guy in mid-life can hate 183 grams worth of plastic, various metals and semiconductors. I feel as though this rectangular black hole is swallowing everything that could be beautiful and good in my life.
But that suggestion was of no avail to me, because I’d already shut off the notifications long before. That didn’t stop me from picking up the device and ruining life by myself. In a certain sense, the silencing of the notifications even aggravates the situation, because it stimulates the desire to examine the phone time and again to see whether you missed something.
So the next step after dealing with the gray hues was aggressive blocking that neutralizes some of the phone’s functions, rather than its appearance. Such possibilities are embedded in the operating system or in downloadable applications. I’m fond of an especially lethal one called “Lock me out,” whereby anyone who cracks during the blocking period has to pay money to the app to get their phone reopened, a humiliating experience by all accounts.
Among other options, “Lock me out” makes it possible to create a blacklist of apps that are to be blocked or, by contrast, to define a white list of those that are still to be enabled while blocking all the rest. From my experience, one can always get around the blockage of the blacklists. White lists are more confining and complicated, and indeed led me to some embarrassing situations because I always forgot to include important apps, and after you lockup you can’t really turn back unless you want to pay. It’s no fun, for example, to discover that you blocked the bus-payment app when the ticket inspector comes on board.
Because of my extensive experience with these sadomasochistic methods, I shortened the blockage time to two days during which I approached the problem from a different angle. This time there were no lists, black or white, but a cruel quota of the number of unlocks. On a regular day, for example, I usually unlock my phone 43 times. On the first day I allowed myself to turn it on 18 times before it locked down totally; on the second day I went down to 12. Limiting the number of turnings-on is ostensibly more effective than filtering specific apps, because it’s meant to hit the target dead-on – by minimizing your interaction with the device. But in practice it didn’t really help.
When you can turn on the device 12 times a day, each time becomes a special occasion, and you stretch it out to the maximum in order to extract from it every possible drop of surfing. In addition, the only thing that ends up interesting you on a day like that is how many times are left and whether that will be enough. It’s especially annoying when you have a concrete task to execute, such as getting a used smartwatch (to use instead of a phone) ahead of the third stage of this experiment from a young Israeli guy, whose particulars I kept for convenience in my phone under the name “Galaxy over and out ‘bro,” because he liked to conclude sentences with “over and out ‘bro.” He left the watch (which cost 800 shekels – about $258) for his ‘bro in the water-boiler cabinet adjacent to his apartment in one of the new residential towers that have sprung up recently on the outskirts of Tel Aviv; he sent me recorded messages in sequence about using the watch via WhatsApp that demanded more and more turn-on possibilities, which I didn’t have at the time.
Pacifier for grown-ups
“Interventions using apps to limit use have been described as ineffective since they block access to certain functions of the phone, but do not disentangle the underlying motivations of use,” Laura Marciano, from the University of Lugano, in Switzerland, an expert on how people are affected by smartphone use, confirmed. She quoted an article published last June which surveyed 21 studies about so-called digital detox. The bottom line is that the results were “mixed,” meaning that these methods might not be so amazing.
Drawing on new addiction theories, Dr. Marciano explained that the smartphone problem has two phases. In the first, people who have an impulsive tendency (who doesn’t? The whole popsicle market is based on impulsive tendencies!) start to check their phone regularly in order to find out what’s lurking inside. They naturally discover that in some cases a momentary, deceptive pleasure awaits them there that resembles a thrilling message from “Galaxy over and out bro.” But in the second phase, the compulsiveness already takes root in its own right as a tool for emotional regularization.
“Compulsive behaviors [like these] are acted to distract oneself from difficulties, regulate mood, and avoid negative emotions,” Marciano wrote in an article published earlIer this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. In other words, the root of dependency on smartphones lies in simple stimulus-response dynamics, of the sort that causes anyone who visits a casino to pull the handle of the machine repeatedly until their change runs out. But over time the addiction becomes based on the device’s ability to dissolve your distress and make you forget it momentarily. In short, it’s a pacifier for grown-ups. It’s no surprise, then, that a 2017 study found that even a smartphone that is placed face-down in silent mode, or is in one’s bag, still disturbs its owner’s concentration.
There were times when I could sit on the train and simply think. But now, either I’m surfing or trying to keep myself from doing that.
Anna Lembke, from the Stanford University School of Medicine, thinks that constant behavioral disruption leads in turn to a disruption of cerebral processes, and that the two feed on each other. Devices like the smartphone cause our brain to be flooded with dopamine as never before, she says. Because the brain always seeks to achieve a situation of homeostasis, it compensates for this by altering its pleasure threshold. Thus a stimulus that in the past generated pleasure is today needed simply to feel all right. In addition, Prof. Lembke notes, the brain generates anxiety and depression in order to balance all the good that stimulating screens heap on us.
“We are all, of a sort, engaged with our own masturbation machines,” she wrote in her book, “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” published last August. But sometimes the stimulus provided by the smartphone is not pleasurable at all. So, I asked Lembke by email: What’s addictive about that?
“One of the prime functions of dopamine is to respond to novel stimuli in the environment, including aversive stimuli. So yes, it is possible to get ‘addicted’ to negative news feeds or bad-news texts/emails,” she replied.
The professor recommended totally kicking the screens habit for a month. “You’re right that intrusive thoughts of your smartphone are the problem,” she wrote sympathetically. “That is craving, which is one of the main reasons people relapse. But if you wait long enough, in my experience four weeks is the minimum time necessary to go cold turkey from addictive drugs, including screens, then the mental preoccupation starts to wane and eventually disappears altogether, unless we’re triggered.”
Well, disconnecting from screens for a month is not on the agenda, and even if it is, what will I do after a month? Switch jobs and begin herding sheep? So there’s no choice but to use alternatives, and here’s where the web-connected smartwatch connected enters the picture. This realm in Israel, it turns out, is still in its relative infancy: Only some of the cellular networks support eSIM watches – the expensive ones, at that. Moreover, you have to pay 15 shekels ($4.85) a month for the pleasure.
I spent half a day working to connect my smartwatch to the cellular network, and when it worked I went outside and for the first time for a few years I tasted the intoxicating flavor of relative freedom. Of course, I had left the house without a cellphone in the past, too, but it wasn’t the same thing. Here you remain connected to the world, without the smartphone’s oppressive and tempting screen, but rather by means of a smart device that draws your phone contacts from the Google cloud by itself. As a bonus it also shows the time and contributes a great deal to your image as an eccentric in the eyes of other people in the street, especially when you stroll along and talk into the watch like Dick Tracy, detective.
True, the watch is somewhat cumbersome and heavy, its battery runs out fast and conducting conversations with it is no great pleasure, nor is navigating about in the city with the aid of its postage-stamp-size screen. But these are compromises that can be lived with, at least during some of our forays into the world outside. The wisdom lies in avoiding the temptation of treating the smartwatch like a miniature smartphone and trying to surf the web on it, for example. When I found myself squinting in order to decipher its tiny fonts – while trying to find the number of Israel Post’s customer service, to ask about a package that hadn’t arrived, during a gut-wrenching bus trip – I missed my smartphone a little, during those three days. With it I felt addicted, yes, but not imbecilic.
In the fourth stage of my experiment, I put the watch aside and switched for another three days to a Nokia 105 dumbphone, which the neighbors’ 10-year-old son lent me (thank you, Yonatan!). Again I had to switch cellular networks, because it turns out that the one I’d moved to for the smartwatch is too sophisticated for old-fashioned phones like this. When I heard Nokia’s familiar jingle emanate from my dumbphone, a dumb smile spread across my face. I felt as light as the 74 grams it weighs. Even the bother of sending text messages by the old method, where you have to press the digit 5 four times to get to the letter lamed, was like a balm. Limitations often calm you down, and extreme limitations are calming in the extreme. Here with this old device, in contrast to the watch, there was no internet, no pulse meter, no interesting functions, nor will there be. Only a listless reptile still slithering around in the legendary Snake game. Oh, and a flashlight.
In the evening I went to pick up a delivery of “direct from the farmer” produce at a site near my home – the result of an initiative that had been publicized via the neighborhood WhatsApp group a few days earlier, when I still had WhatsApp on my phone. Now that I didn’t have it, I was the only one in the group who missed the message that the deliveryman would be late in arriving from the Galilee. So I found myself sitting alone on the sidewalk, leaning on a fence. It was a pleasant evening, and I was suddenly unusually aware of my surroundings. On one of the balconies above I saw a light fixture in which neon lightbulbs in two shades of white had mistakenly been installed. A smell of frying pervaded the air. Across from me, a Volkswagen Golf was parked in a red-and-white zone, forcing everyone who drove on the street to slalom around it. It had been such a long time, I said to myself, since I had sat on the street like this, and simply absorbed what was around me.
If you wait long enough, in my experience four weeks is the minimum time necessary to go cold turkey from addictive drugs, including screens, then the mental preoccupation starts to wane and eventually disappears.Prof. Anna Lembke
The transition from smartphone to dumbphone compelled me to deal with what I consider the worst outrage of all: WhatsApp. The instant-messaging app, which craftily conjoins one’s private life and working life, is so important that it’s impossible to forgo it – and yet, on the other hand, it bores into one’s soul. The solution would appear to be WhatsApp Web, namely WhatsApp in the computer, but Mark Zuckerberg’s accursed company has ensured that that won’t work if it’s not first installed in your (smart)phone.
I was happy to find a solution on an obscure site of citizens fearful of radiation who want WhatsApp but don’t want a cellular device. Turns out that you can install a program called BlueStacks in your computer, and from that moment it has a kind of small android phone inside it. Now the WhatsApp relocated to the computer will no longer work in the phone. To complete the deed, you can transform the account from private to business for free, enabling you to send everyone who writes to you an automatic message: “Available intermittently. Phone only if urgent.”
A coati caught
The last three days of the entire two-week experiment were devoted to life with no cellphone or smartwatch at all. Devoid of possibilities and brimming with possibilities, I wandered the streets like a brown-nosed coati that escaped from the zoo in Rishon Letzion, a moment before the wardens nab it and return it to its cage. Obviously this situation has its limitations; it was also obvious that I wouldn’t last longer than three days.
Cellular technology has changed us from within. When I speak with someone in person, for example, there’s always the thought in the back of my head that a moment after I walk away, it would be possible to add something or delete something from what I had just said. At the end of almost every thought there is a Google search, or at least a phone call. I don’t think it’s really possible to go back again. Besides which, if, for example, my son will go into day care, how will I be summoned if something happens? Will his little body have to pay the price of his dad’s hip choices?
In any case, the attempt to temporarily disconnect from the phone without disconnecting from the rest of regular life was eye-opening. I carried out the process of returning to the smartphone slowly and reluctantly; all its fancy features seemed repugnant. The thought of leaving the house with it aroused an oppressive but mainly silly feeling. Who needs to take a computer with you everywhere? It’s clear that just as there are situations where you need an umbrella, there are situations in which you need a smartphone. For instance, I wouldn’t want to travel to the home of “over and out ‘bro” in Be’er Yaakov without a navigation program.
But there are plenty of forays outside the house in which it’s preferable to be without the omnipresent device. I mean, why should I be able, in a playground with the kids, to search for a used espresso machine on Facebook? Why, during an evening walk, should I receive WhatsApp messages from work?
“Our problem is that the addiction has become the norm,” says Yair Amichai-Hamburger, head of the Research Center for Internet Psychology at Reichman University in Herzliya. “We think we are all right, because everyone else is like us. We look right and left and we see that the other parents are also pushing their children on the swing while checking their phoneS. But if you don’t define yourself as an addict, you won’t do anything to escape it.”
Prof. Griffiths, for his part, thinks there is no need for hysteria – that today’s young people spending hours on the smartphone is not so different from the hours he himself spent watching television in his youth. But others will say that this is not a good comparison. There’s a difference between watching a few episodes of something on TV and the Chinese torture (in more than one sense) of turning on one’s smartphone 79 times a day, or once every 13 minutes on average. That’s what Gen Z does, according to a study published on Statista last June, which is based on data from 2018, meaning pre-pandemic. The situation today is incalculably grimmer.
“There is no comparison between the smartphone and TV, because the smartphone creates a never-ending pleasure loop,” Prof. Amichai-Hamburger adds. “It could well be the most potent sugar there is, it’s the gate to paradise. The addiction to it is amazing.”
There are also advantages to that. I’m certain that dentists’ waiting rooms, say, are far calmer today, because all the druggies (and me among them) sit their with an ongoing supply of our drug in its purest form: scrolling without guilt. That’s a pleasure that no Vogue, People or National Geographic magazines could ever provide in previous decades.
“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation,” Lembke writes in her book. The wisdom is knowing how and when to remove the needle.
After two weeks of a diversified diet, my conclusion is that all those who are bothered by the smartphone should decide which types of limitations described in the above examples best suit their needs and personality.
Now, after having returned to the smartphone, I’m a little stronger, or slightly less weak. I won’t declare that I’ve “kicked the habit” because I know that’s a mistake. You can say that I’m a relatively clean addict, perhaps.
On a recent evening, for example, I was home alone and the kids were sleeping. In the past I would always yield to the temptation of perusing the phone for an hour at least, and curse. This time I succeeded in holding myself back, took “Madame Bovary” from the bookshelf and started to read. A little less thrilling than looking for discounted diapers on the internet. But still, not badly written. After a few days I discovered, to my surprise and without intending it, that the day before I had turned on the phone only 16 times. I hope this isn’t just a passing phenomenon and that I will manage to keep WhatsApp only on my computer, for example. I’m certain that I will also have one of the cellular options that are lagging at the level of the hardware: a regular watch or a dumbphone. It’s possible, by the way, to have a dumbphone along with a smart one, with the same SIM card and the same number, by adding a few shekels to your monthly account.
Israel National Road Safety Authority quotes research from the past few years according to which the use of a cellphone increases the chance of an accident tenfold, and that in 52 percent of the accidents there was cellular distraction before the collision. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is. The smartphone is killing us, literally. Maybe we should smack it around a little in return.