In a departure from news related to the First World War…
I think my smartphone is every bit as addictive as cigarettes. Minus the nicotine, yes; minus the tobacco, yes. Minus the potential for life threatening illness as a result of continual usage, also yes.
However, the other morning, as I reached over to the bedside table, blurry-eyed and barely awake, fumbling about until my hand touched upon my phone, it occurred to me that this is exactly the behaviour of an addicted smoker. Not that I do that every morning mind you, there are mornings when I leap out of bed awake, alert and ready to meet the challenges of the day (not too many of those), mornings where I stretch out and enjoy the feeling of gathering consciousness, eking out those few precious minutes between being on time and being late. Sometimes, I might even find time for a sneaky read before facing the day.
But there are definitely days when I reach for my phone before my mind has properly switched on; a primal urge to communicate, or to check whether someone communicated with me. Blinking widely, I’ll open Twitter and scroll to check that nothing awful has happened while I slept. Then Snapchat, just in case friends have shared their wild night out; then Facebook, then… Until I’ve been through every available app, just in case.
This absurd behaviour got me thinking about how many times during the average day I will dig out my phone to do exactly that. Idly, randomly, check through the various channels of communication. When I’m standing in a queue; on the bus; on the train; having a cup of coffee; bizarrely, when I’m walking down the street – regardless of how busy that street may be. In fact, I’m quite likely to discuss the fact that the street is very busy and very hot with anyone who shares the same social network as me. I’m likely to check a weather app rather than look up at the sky, or Google a question the moment it occurs to me rather than spend a little while wondering. Even when I’m supposed to be watching a gripping drama on TV, the temptation to share the moment on Twitter can be overwhelming: ‘Haven’t got a clue what’s happening! #TheHonourableWoman’ for example. And what makes this so addictive, particularly with Twitter, is the hundred or so other people all watching the same drama, at the same time, typing the same kind of inanity.
When the cigarette analogy first occurred to me, I dismissed it as ridiculous. Then I became increasingly aware of how similar my behaviour was to that of a smoker. I decided to leave the smart phone alone for a day. How many times did I reach for it? I lost count. I fidgeted, physically and mentally when stood in a queue in the bank. What was the point in standing there, overhearing other people’s private conversations? I reasoned. Such a waste of social networking time! Where was the harm in a quick Tweet… And then, when I was having a coffee break, I found I was drumming my fingers and chewing the inside of my cheek. What’s the point of a coffee break if you can’t check in with ‘people’?? Before I knew it, I had dismissed the whole exercise as pointless and given in. Of course I could leave the smartphone alone if I wanted to…
The irony of this was not lost on me. Clearly, on an average working day, I couldn’t leave the blasted thing alone at all. Smokers get fag breaks I thought, the rest of us should get smartphone breaks. We too should have little perspex shelters at the corner of the car park where we can nip off for 10 minutes of guilt free technology.
I think I’ve created a problem for myself simply by becoming aware of the way I use my smartphone. I love being able to connect with people, of having a little window on the world, keeping up with the news, playing a silly game now and then. That little smartphone has added quite a lot to my life in the most unlikely of ways. I’ve met some lovely people; I’ve learned things and I’ve laughed a lot. What I don’t love about it is the constant urge to check it, just because it’s there. I don’t daydream as much as I used to; I don’t stare out of train windows and imagine all kinds of lives being lived in the houses that blur past me; I don’t people-watch to the same extent or tell myself stories. Instead, like a truculent child, I demand to be entertained, so I pull out my smartphone in the misconception that I will find more entertainment there than I will in the space around me.
When I’m abroad on holiday, I leave the phone alone. I hardly miss it, because I know I can’t use it in the same way as I can at home and I’m in an unfamiliar and wonderful place. By the end of my break, I don’t miss the phone at all. I have broken the habit. I have no urge to reach for it in every spare moment. I don’t feel jittery about missing a vital e-mail, text message or tweet. I am, without a doubt, calmer for not having to fight the urge. When I get home I promise myself that I will not return to the same obsessive use. I’ll use it perhaps once or twice a day, that’s all. I will be in charge of it, not the other way around. That should be easy enough right..?
Sure, that phone will never make me a burden on the NHS; it will never make my lungs seize up, have me wheezing, coughing and struggling for breath. But can I quit it? Can I put it down and not have even the slightest urge to check what the rest of the world is up to over a cup of coffee, on a train or while walking down a busy street?
No, because I enjoy it too much.