I’m guilty of a lot of things when it comes to managing my relationships with family and friends—bribing my children with toys, driving my husband crazy with obsessive neatness, and constantly forgetting birthdays—but my greatest weakness? Here’s a hint: You are probably reading this article on one right now. My smartphone.
Yes, I’m a technology addict. Or a recovering one. I’m definitely better than I was, say, four years ago, when I would literally refresh my Gmail once a minute and couldn’t focus on any assignments at the law firm where I worked because I needed to check the Facebook news feed every 10 seconds. I always knew something was wrong with my behavior. Recognizing a problem is half the battle, right? Not exactly.
Around the time my Internet addiction really peaked, I had two children: a two-year-old and a baby. Now I have three. I could get away with my addiction much more easily back then. My toddler son didn’t know any better. My baby girl was clueless about the rectangle that kept getting thrust in her face with the directive: SAY CHEESE. But babies don’t stay babies forever, and when I photographed my son on the ski slopes two years ago and he asked me, “Did you get a lot of ‘like's?” I realized the impact of my addiction on them.
My older son is now in first grade and has about 30 minutes of homework a night. I yell at him for about 20 of those minutes to “focus, focus, focus!” which I just couldn’t do if I was still double-fisting an iPhone and an iPad. Now I’ve scaled down to a device in one hand, a diet Coke in the other. A few years ago I might have been live-Tweeting the argument with my son (#homeworkblues). That was back when I was combing Instagram in the movie theater and putting pictures of my meals online. So, yes, I’m happy with my progress.
The Internet—and social media in particular—fascinates me for many reasons, mostly for its paradoxes. It connects us but can make us feel lonely. It saves us time by letting us share with a large group at once but also drains countless hours. It gives everyone a forum to broadcast their everyday lives, but in reality we’re curating our stories with perfectly posed pictures. Is this really how we want to be spending our free time? Posing for the perfect selfie? Struggling to be witty in 140 characters or less?
So how did I wean myself from my addiction? It wasn’t easy. When I first sought to decrease my screen time, I was changing careers and starting to write a novel about a young lawyer who gives up the Internet for a year. I knew that true digital deprivation was more than I could ever accomplish in real life, so I let the dream take hold in the fictional world. Whenever I told anyone about what I was writing, they would ask: Did you do that? To give my novel more credibility, to make sure I understood the offline experience, and to cut back on what I knew was a crippling addiction, I felt compelled to drastically reduce my dependence on the Internet.
I started with simple steps. If I was home, I’d leave the computer and phone in another room. If I had my cell phone in my bag and was with my kids, I’d put it on silent. I turned off all the alerts on my apps. And I made little deals with myself: I won’t look at my phone until Scandal is over. Or I won’t read my e-mail until I finish the next chapter of whatever I’m reading. At first I tried to be stricter with myself when my kids were around, but I found it was kind of all or nothing. You can’t religiously check in when they are in school or sleeping and then expect to be able to live offline when you are with them (especially because playing Candyland on the floor is exactly the time you want an Internet fix the most). It’s like cigarettes or alcohol. You can’t just quit on the weekends.
The other change I made was more philosophical. I asked myself, what exactly do I think I’m missing out on? The e-mail traffic seems to never cease, but I discovered that I was responsible for a great deal of that. If you receive an e-mail from someone and respond within one minute, it sets off a stream of messages at the pace of a live conversation. But if you wait at least an hour to respond, it sends a different message, no pun intended. The same goes for texting. I also learned that checking Instagram and Facebook only once a day had zero impact on my friendships. At first a friend might have asked me why I didn’t comment on her post when normally I would have been the first "liker," but over time the people around me came to accept that I wasn’t connected 24/7 anymore. And they were okay with it.
There were struggles, though. Sitting in a doctor’s office, it was all too tempting to reach for my phone. Instead, I’m make myself pick up a magazine, though I did find it hard to read articles long enough to have actual paragraphs. Even waiting to cross the street I found myself itching. But that itch kept me going on my quest to quit. Because it’s not "normal" for a 60-second red light to feel like an eternity. It sounds cliché, but I found other ways to amuse myself—people-watching (real, actual people in the flesh), getting lost in my own daydreams, or even just looking at my surroundings.
The results of reducing the presence of the Internet in my life are overwhelmingly positive. I have a stronger marriage now that I’m at looking at my husband instead of my phone; I have less guilt about my parenting, and my brain feels uncluttered for the first time in years. I don’t have one fewer friend. I take pictures mostly for myself, not for social media. And my anxiety level is significantly lower. The constant buzzing of new information heightened my baseline nervous energy, and without it, I’ve returned to a more stable equilibrium.
My best advice to anyone who feels technology is playing too big a role in their lives is to reduce it in baby steps. First, put your phone on silent for an hour. Second, go a full day without checking social media. Third, schedule a few times a day to check email (personal, that is—I can’t help you with work email). Fourth, take a deep breath and remember we all functioned just fine before Waze, InstaCart, Tinder, Facebook, and YouTube. Maybe even better.
Elyssa Friedland is the author of Love and Miss Communication, published by William Morrow on May 12. Visit her at www.elyssafriedland.com.