A Painful Conversation Reminded Me to Avoid Forging A Toxic Bond With My Phone

Vishal Kataria

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(Photo by Eddy Billard on Unsplash)

A few months ago, I reached out to a friend, David, whom I hadn’t heard from — rather, seen from — in a while.

David wasn’t just active on social media, he probably lived in it. He posted on Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook every day. He posted memes, photos of what he cooked, what he ate, which mall he was at, which movie he was watching, his motorcycle rides, travel… social media was a real-time catalog of his life.

But for the last two months, he had fallen off the radar. Fearing the worst, I called him. I didn’t expect him to answer. He’s the sort of person who doesn’t answer a call but watches the phone ring. And as soon as the ringing ends, he texts the caller, “What’s up!”

But he answered. And it was my turn to ask him, “What’s up?”

“Mom expired two months ago,” he said.

I was stunned. After I finally found my voice, I asked, “How?”

“It wasn’t the virus,” David said. “She was healthy. Then one evening, her heart suddenly stopped beating. And the doctors couldn’t revive her.”

David had always been closer to his mother than to anyone else, even his wife. I asked how he was feeling. Living without her was something he was forced to learn, he said, though he never wanted to learn it.

“Is that why you’ve been off social media?” I asked.

“You know the worst part? Just two days before she left us, she asked me to buy vegetables and I got upset. I told her to cut me some slack. She complained I used my phone a lot. And we got into an argument because I was scrolling Instagram when she said that. And she bought the vegetables herself, though my wife insisted on getting them.

“Forget telling her that I loved her. I didn’t even get a chance to make her happy one final time. So how am I feeling? ‘Like a jerk’ is putting it mildly.”

For the first time ever, I heard David cry. And nothing I could say would console him. After all, he’d unexpectedly lost the person he loved most. More than losing her, he hated the circumstances that transpired before her demise.

David couldn’t stop cursing himself. The reason? His phone.

Our Toxic Relation With Our Phones

Most of us don’t experience such punishing emotions that make us want to break the phone in half. (If you have, my heart goes out to you.) But we share a love-hate relationship with our phones. We want to avoid it but keep returning to it over and over again.

Using our phones often leaves us in a worse-off mood. We feel like crap when we see others’ highlight reels and assume it’s their real life. We feel irritated when we check emails that add to our work, most of which is already futile. And in the rare case when the phone does make us feel good, the feeling lasts less than a minute.

It’s like being in a toxic relationship. Your selfish partner manipulates you into doing things that benefit him. You’re aware you’re being manipulated. You know you need to get out. But the harder you try, the deeper you get sucked in.

Your phone manipulates you through notifications. It behaves as if it does this because you’re important, as if spending time on it is your “me-time.” But in reality, it shows you notifications to make you touch it up to 5,427 times a day. That’s not a sign of a good partner.

Like a toxic partner, your phone eventually takes control of all your decisions. It starts innocently, with the phone deciding which apps and emails you should attend to.

But over time, it dictates the places you should visit, and food you should eat (because they’ll look good on Instagram), and the news that you should follow (because you need to “stay informed”). It’s the first thing you touch when you wake up and the last thing you touch before you sleep.

The worst part? You’re never happy. Doomscrolling and Facebook Depression are real terms that occur due to overexposure to the screen. And research proves that such overexposure causes unhappiness.

But you don’t need research to tell you that. You already feel it in your gut, don’t you?

On average, we spend close to four hours on our phones daily. That’s almost 24 hours each week. That’s like spending your entire Sunday on the phone. No sleep, no hanging out with people you love, no activities that rejuvenate you. Just scrolling through your phone.

Imagine the toll this will take on your mental health three months, six months, one year down the line! I admit, breaking up with your phone is tough. It’s not even advisable. After all, your phone is a useful tool that can increase your productivity.

Separation Isn’t the Solution

What if, instead of breaking up with it, you just spent less time on your phone? Like, 50 percent less? What could you do with those two spare hours?

You could ask your partner how her day was, and pay attention when she answers. You could play with your kids in the park, something they complain you don’t do enough. You could take a quiet walk in the neighborhood.

You can do all this and more because you want to, not because you’re forced to. You can find more time to do what makes you happy. Like working on your side project, meditating, or reading. You can finally learn that you’re enough by yourself.

Doing this doesn’t take much. Just a few simple steps.

  1. Turn off all notifications on your phone so you take control of your attention.
  2. Limit the time you spend while scrolling apps. (If you can’t find the willpower to do it, use app blockers.)
  3. Have a meaningful phone conversation with one friend instead of texting 20 people with acronyms like “rn,” “ikr,” and “k”.
  4. When you’re done with work, put the phone in a place that’s not easy to reach, so you don’t feel tempted to touch it repeatedly.

This will feel tough in the beginning. You’ll struggle with the thought that everyone has forgotten you. You’ll worry that something could go horribly wrong at work while you were unavailable. You’ll feel like the world is caving in.

But as time goes by, you’ll realize that your fears were misplaced, that they were just False Evidence Appearing Real. If someone really needs you, they’ll call. If they don’t, whatever it is can wait until the next morning.

You, meanwhile, will feel relieved because you have more time to do what you want. You’ll crave validation from yourself more than from others. You’ll lay the bricks to build a life that feels meaningful to you. And in all this, you’ll learn to fall in love with yourself.

All it takes is putting the phone away for a few moments each day and living in the present.

Make Some “Real” Me-Time

I asked David what he had done in the last two months. He said he had taken a vacation to take time off.

“I hope to see some pics of the trip,” I said.

“I barely took any,” David said. “It felt strange, but also liberating. I wasn’t enslaved by the phone. I didn’t worry how much battery was left, how strong the signal was, or whether I should use the landscape or portrait or panoramic lens to capture the snow. I used my own eyes instead of a six-inch screen to soak in the view. I saw the place the way my mom wanted me to see it. I just wish I could’ve seen it with her.”

After our call, I sat quietly for some time. Then I switched off my phone and went for a walk.

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