I have begun to suspect that some of what I read is not even true. I tell myself that I am checking the news, but it is not always new or important. I read news that is not quite news — news about celebrities, celebrities’ views of the news and jokes about celebrities’ views of the news. I check the weather app several times a day — more often than I look out the window to check the weather. My phone dings when I get a message. How can you not check the message?
My dependency has gotten worse during the pandemic. When I stopped buying newspapers, I put myself at the mercy of the CNN app. Not seeing people in person leads to more emails and texts. The “whoosh” from hitting send is so satisfying. Reading that everyone is bingeing The Queen’s Gambit makes it hard not to be invested in Beth Harmon’s chess career.
I once saw something amusing on Twitter, so I check every day to see if there is something else amusing. The technical term for this is FOMO — Fear of Missing Out. Facebook is supposed to feel like checking on friends, but it feels like checking on friends’ fantasy lives. I check my phone without thinking about what I am checking. My attention span is getting shorter.
I look at my phone whenever I have to wait more than 30 seconds. I pass the time looking for something to pass the time. I pick up my phone while eating meals with people I love. I am addicted. On Sunday morning, my phone tells me my screen time for the previous week. I think, “That can’t be right,” but I take my phone to listen to the news while I shave. When I do not have my phone, I feel uncomfortable.
According to one study, Americans check their phones 47 times a day. For those between 18 and 24, the average is 82. Americans spend more than four hours a day on the phone — 56 days a year. We use our phones so much we are giving ourselves repetitive injuries such as “texting thumb,” “text neck” and “cell phone elbow.” We do this even as research suggests that the more we use our phones, the less happy we are.
My phone makes it hard for me to put my phone away. The last thing I do at night is set the alarm, so the first thing I do in the morning is pick up my phone. My phone counts my steps, so I have to carry it everywhere. I do not want to come to the end of the day and experience the horror of having 9,700 steps, knowing that if I had taken my phone the last two times I went to the fridge I would have made 10,000. I am trying to impress my phone.
“My phone makes it hard for me to put my phone away.”
My phone makes me think about things that are not worthy of my attention. Why do I care about what’s trending? I know too much about WandaVision, Dr. Seuss and Meghan Markle.
Every morning I have a five-minute Spanish lesson on Duolingo. I have a streak of 2,338 days. Here is the main thing I have learned: No se puede aprender español en cinco minutos al día. (You cannot learn Spanish in five minutes a day.)
My phone rarely makes me feel good. It usually makes me less thoughtful and more self-absorbed. I am not sure I can completely break up with my phone, but we can’t go steady any more. I need to ask, “What do I really want to pay attention to? Am I missing life that does not happen on my phone?”
For Lent, I gave up shaking hands, eating in restaurants and going to movie theaters. I have been wildly successful in keeping those vows. I have been less successful in putting my phone aside, but I will keep trying. I downloaded a phone app on how to avoid phone apps. My screen used to be a picture of Carol — which made reaching for my phone a romantic gesture — so I changed the screen to ask, “Why did you pick me up?”
My phone and I are working toward an uneasy peace. I am setting it out of sight more often. I am learning to admit that my phone does not often help me pray, love my neighbor or focus on things that matter. God is calling, so I need to get off the phone.
Brett Younger serves as senior minister at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.