Screen Time

I recently made two radical decisions that have quickly made me smarter, more mindful, and happier.

I am obviously someone who likes to spend a lot of time outside, getting dirty. There’s not much that I love more than spending time in nature. I didn’t think that someone like me could be subject to screen addiction. I’m too outdoorsy, right?

The idea that maybe I was a little too attached to my smartphone and social media started to nag at me a few months back. I’ve taken social media breaks before, but those were usually short-lived and didn’t do much to moderate my usage long term.

A little over a month ago, I attended the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools Biennial Conference. Michele Borba, one of the keynote speakers, gave a compelling talk about how excessive screen time is eroding our sense of empathy and social skills. She spoke about how this lack of empathy erodes civil society, as well as how empathy is a skill necessary for personal happiness and professional success. While her talk was ostensibly about these negative effects of screen time and social media on kids and teens, I found that her talk resonated with me on a personal level. How many times had I found myself mindlessly scrolling Facebook, when I could have been reading to my kids? (Or to myself?) How many times had I fallen down a smartphone rabbit hole, only to emerge more anxious about the world around me? I should have realized how bad I had gotten when I found myself texting my husband about how awesome Michele’s talk was… during the part of her presentation where she was talking about our need to be more present in the moment. I guess I suffered from a little bit of screen time cognitive dissonance.

I thought that it was great information, but I couldn’t possibly get rid of my smartphone. I needed it! So, I tried to look for things I could do that would help me curb my smartphone time:

1) I learned how to make my screen gray scale, so it wouldn’t be as appealing to stare at it. Well, I stuck to that for about a day before switching it back.

2) I deleted my Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone and downloaded Kindle instead. My thought was that when I went to reach for my phone, I could scroll a book instead of social media. That worked for a few days, but I went right back.

Even as I struggled to moderate my own screen time, I began to notice the pervasiveness of the smartphone in my daily life. I started to cringe at how interested my two year old was in my phone when he saw me playing with it. I noticed the times that I was in a room with other people, and we were looking at our phones instead of each other.

Why was I feeling compelled to stare at this thing? Why was I feeling like I just had to check social media multiple times per day? Why couldn’t I take a walk without pulling out my phone to see what someone else had posted? How many hours of my life have I spent looking down at my phone, instead of up at the world around me?

Has this device made me happier? Has social media made me happier?

Every person is different, but for me, the answer two the last two questions is a resounding no. I am so thankful that social media has kept me in touch with old friends, but there are better ways of doing that.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I permanently deleted my Facebook. It was hard. I downloaded thirteen years of photos that I had on there. I made an all-call for contact information from my friends, so I could keep in touch. Then I did it. And guess what? I immediately read two books. The crazy thing is that before I deleted Facebook, I genuinely thought I didn’t have time to read for pleasure anymore. Frankly, I didn’t have the attention span for it, when my phone was just a reach away, lighting up and buzzing, telling me that someone somewhere had said something, and I must know about it right now.

A few days later, I deleted my personal Instagram. I read another book.

I still found myself reaching for my phone, though. I scanned news headlines, checked my email obsessively, looked at the weather forecast. I was still going on walks while simultaneously scrolling through something on my smartphone. It got me thinking, why do I need this thing at all?

So, last week, I went back to the Stone Age. I took my smartphone to the AT&T store and told them that I wanted a flip phone. The sales guy was dumbfounded. He tried to talk me out of it. His equipment couldn’t even process my switch to a flip phone. It just isn’t done.

I’ve spent about a week without a smartphone for the first time in eight or nine years, and so far, I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Guess what? I read another book. I’ve read more books in the last few weeks than I have since college. One of my key takeaways from Michele’s talk was that reading helps build empathy, and I figure I’ve spent so much time scrolling that I need to make up for lost time.

Now that my two year old is seeing me read more, he is asking to read more. This weekend, I took my kids to the library and got a library card. News flash: did y’all know that libraries are cool buildings that have a wealth of information, books, and resources and wonderful humans who want nothing more than to help you access these resources? I think I knew that once, but I had forgotten about it over the last, say, eight or nine years.

I get that not everyone can or should go without a smartphone or social media. It has worked for me, because I have an iPad at home that I can use to access my email or the internet when I’m not at work. I’m getting a camera and a flashlight, because that’s largely what I used my iPhone for. I do miss being a part of some hilarious group texts. I also miss GPS, but looking up directions before I leave the house isn’t so hard. Instead of funny group texts, I started reaching out to people individually for phone calls and some genuine non-FaceTime face time.

Ditching the screen means I have more time to get my hands in the dirt, so expect a few more gardening posts soon.

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle