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How to Not Be a Screen Junkie
Why should we move to find
Countries and climates of another kind?
What exile leaves himself behind?
Today that line may well read, “what exile leaves his phone behind?” I don’t say that reproachingly; I never leave my apartment without my phone, even to take out the trash. At any moment, I might need to call 9-1-1 or take a picture of a cute cat loitering near the dump. But let’s not deny that we’re in the middle of a phone use epidemic. Everywhere you look, people seem determined to engineer an analog prototype of Neuralink. I’ve seen people glued to their phones while biking on a busy street, which is just begging for a Darin Award. The commonplace instances of this insanity can be even more annoying because of their ubiquity: the phones out at a shared meal; the “quick text” that turns into a semi-long scroll of the socials; the inability to string together two sentences without a frenzied excuse to reach for the nearest device. Screens are our generation’s cigarettes: addictive, corrosive, and bound to be banned at reputable bars and restaurants in a few decades.
Of course, phones, unlike cigarettes, are immensely useful, which is why it’s important to have a healthy relationship with them rather than quitting them altogether. I’m concerned about screen junkie behavior: compulsive phone checking, wondering if so-and-so replied to your text, obsessing over your TwitTokstagram numbers, doomscrolling, and so on. Let’s call this kind of behavior “screening” to differentiate it from intentionally using your devices to do work or keep important lines of communication open.
I’ve found that my phone is much more useful and enjoyable when my screening is minimal, and I hear the same thing from my friends. All of us want to “be better” about our phones, but we end up falling into the same habits again and again. We need systems, not willpower. In the interest of helping both myself and others, I’ll present mine here.
Two caveats: first, I can only say that this works for me personally; second, we’re all walking around with devices which some of the smartest people on the planet are programming to be as addictive as possible, so don’t sweat it if you fall back into bad screening habits now and again. Sometimes, declaring war is just as important as winning.
Guideline #1: The phone should primarily be an outgoing device.
Between my phone number, email, socials, and website, it’s now possible for anybody to reach me at any time. This is why I take pains to be mostly unreachable. Do Not Disturb is my default setting unless I’m expecting an important call. People get in touch with me however they like, and I respond at my leisure. Anything truly important will make its way to me eventually.
There are exceptions for work or personal issues, of course. This isn’t an exact science—the point is to get comfortable with recognizing what needs to be dealt with in a timely manner, and what doesn’t. Most communication is not nearly as urgent as it seems to be; I treat texts like emails, emails like letters, and letters like wastepaper.
Guideline #2: Don’t keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever known.
Social media makes it easy, almost necessary, to be “friends” with or “follow” everyone you’ve ever met, or even glanced at across a room. For obvious reasons, it’s in the companies’ best interests to have users with large networks. Less obvious is how this helps us in any way. Of course, I have friends, family, and colleagues with whom I want to keep in touch, and social media is great for that. But I don’t let Instagram suggest my friends to me. Rule of thumb: if someone wouldn’t hit me up to give me the news that they’re pregnant or got their dream job, I don’t need to stumble upon it on my feed.
Guideline #3: Always be searching.
I turn off YouTube history and recommendations, and always search for specific videos or accounts I want to find instead of letting the algorithm take me down a rabbit hole. This practice also works as a way to trick my mind into being more intentional. Instead of scrolling endlessly, I search for my friends on social media and see what they’ve been up to. I keep only the apps I might need at a moment’s notice on my phone’s homepage—the rest, I stuff into folders in the second page and use Spotlight Search to get to them. I’ve found that this “analogue” method of sifting through the digital world is an effective way to be intentional about whose accounts I view or which apps I use, when, and why.
The phone version of opening the fridge and wondering what you were looking for is more grim than its real-world counterpart. After staring blankly into the fridge, you might close it and get back to what you were doing. With a phone, stumbling onto social media absent-mindedly can mean falling into a doped out screening loop. I try to use my phone as a resource—more pocket library than all-in-one casino and drug den.
Guideline #4: Create at least as much as you consume.
The most fun and powerful aspect of the internet, for me, is that I can make things and just put them out there. Why, then, do I need to spend so much time knee-deep in other people’s content, especially if I don’t like it? The social internet is almost perfectly designed to undermine our individuality by cramming content down our throats at all times. Even enjoyable content can be a trap because it’s easy to consume whenever there’s a free moment. Doing the dishes? Put on that podcast you like. Relaxing? Check out that show everyone’s talking about.
The brain needs to be by itself to figure out what it really likes. Absent that, we will soon become garbage receptacles for Big Content. Be wary: here be zombies.
Guideline #5: Unspeak the internet.
Internet lingo is inane. I’ve noticed a dull layer of onlinespeak building up around the lexicons of otherwise intelligent people. Language is intrinsically memefiable, but the internet weaponizes the process. Some examples of this meaningless argot:
Imagine thinking… (usually followed by strawman arguments, misrepresentations, and uncharitable interpretations)
Sometimes I think (x) but then I remember (y) and I realize (z)
Can’t believe I have to say this but…
Yeah sex is great but have you ever had/done/tried (x)
Let that sink in
I feel seen
Like mayflies, they flash in and out of existence. I keep a running list of them, and keep them out of my parlance. If we lose the ability to write and speak clearly, we lose the ability to think clearly as well. Of all the ways in which social media deindividuates us, this might be the most sinister. We carry in our pockets the tools by which we turn ourselves into a mass organism.
Guideline #6: Don’t look things up in the middle of a conversation.
Allow friends to be hyperbolic, entertaining, or just plain wrong. Real time fact checking is death for a conversation. It’s usually just nitpicking, and it’s always derailing. Do it a few times, and the conversation will never turn into a feast of reason and a flow of soul.
More importantly, like real addicts, we never go for just one hit. I see this so often, both in myself and others: we go to look something up that we’ve been talking about, and afterwards—with unspoken understanding—we’re quickly doing the rounds, checking texts, snapchats, and TwitTokstagram. Observe it in your friends next time: their faces gloss over as they fall into the comforting embrace of their chosen drug, the screen. This is why we wildly underestimate our screen times: we think of conscious screen time, not all the times we went in for one thing and quickly checked everything else for a few minutes. Do that a dozen times a day, and you’ve got a bona fide screening problem.
These are some ideas for yourself, but what about your friends? Shame them—with love, of course. Shame can be a powerful social deterrent: smoking has become passé not only because of legislation, but because your friends will shame you for smoking. If I pulled out a cigarette at the next hang out, they would say, “Hey man, are you out of your mind?” Next time you’re chatting with an old friend at a bar and they pull out their phone, act like they just lit up a cig at the table. You can be gentle, but firm: put it away, please.