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Is it time to be honest about how much we use our phones?

New laws giving employees the right to ignore emails after work hours are a great idea, says Sali Hughes. But the first step to learning how to disconnect starts with ourselves

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By Sali Hughes on

Last week, much was made of the French government’s passing of a new law affording all French employees “The Right to Disconnect”. This means that employers must at least allow discussion around the expectation that a member of staff’s phone should be switched on out of hours, and whether or not they’re obliged to respond to emails when not strictly at work. “How civilised” was the consensus here, with many hoping British lawmakers might follow suit. Understandable, when we work longer hours than anyone else in Europe, but is it entirely honest? When it comes to disconnecting, I’m not sure the law is what’s standing in our way. We don’t switch off our phones purely because our bosses expect us to be contactable. I’m afraid I just don’t believe we want to.

Almost everyone I know spends too much time online and I’m as culpable as the next iPhone junkie. Only last week, I was sitting in a fast-food place with my two sons, their godfathers, my partner and a friend, ostensibly grabbing some nachos between trawling the shops with my kids’ Christmas vouchers. My phone buzzed with some notification or other and, by the time I’d needlessly dealt with it and looked up, every single member of my party had opportunistically taken out their own phone and was either answering emails, browsing Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, playing Scrabble or watching some complete stranger play Minecraft on YouTube.

While there’s nothing at all unusual about this nowadays (I see it constantly in restaurants, pubs, meetings and other gatherings), I do think it’s time we all admitted to ourselves that it is neither healthy nor objectively normal. And nor is it something we’re made to do. My friends had travelled over 10,000 miles from Melbourne to be with their loved ones; I had waited for over five months – and with increasing desperation – to spend some proper quality time with my family away from the stresses of my work schedule. And yet every single one of us had momentarily and unthinkingly ignored one another in favour of people about whom we care much less, or news we’d already forgotten about by the time we’d reached for our coats. A few days later, when my friends had flown home and I was missing them terribly, my partner and I binged on a box set on 4oD. In each and every ad break, we both instinctively reached for our phones, scrolling, clicking and swiping wordlessly, until the programme resumed. I am currently in the throes of my worst period of insomnia in five years and I spend most of my twilight hours cycling pointlessly and depressingly through the same four social-media apps until my body just gives in. Even after 10 years with an iPhone (I was an early adopter and have barely let go since), these three events have given me a much-needed sting of shame.

The only person causing me to overuse my phone is me. I know this because I go through extended periods of not doing it

The only person causing me to overuse my phone is me. I know this because I go through extended periods of not doing it. I periodically scale back on iPhone use, because I’m either too busy or sufficiently resolved. It’s of vital importance to my wellbeing to stay fully present in the real world and at least allow the horrid, frenetic brain activity from excessive usage to slow to normal and recover. It’s during these times that I become particularly cross with those around me, when I realise I’m watching another TV show alone, while the faces of my loved ones are bathed in the glow of the iPhone, or when I look down at a restaurant table and wonder why I’m being forced to compete with a freeloading lump of black plastic, and with the people causing it to vibrate and ping, rather than get on a bus to come and meet us. I notice friends who must surely spend at least half of their amazing, wonderful, unforgettable nights out taking and posting pictures of their amazing, wonderful and unforgettable night out. I wonder how good an evening would need to be to command their attention for long enough to enjoy it.

And, while I also recognise some of these behaviours in myself, it is still shockingly easy to slip back into overuse when bored, down or lonely, especially when safe in the knowledge that society broadly approves. It’s hard to view phone addiction as something as serious as, say, gambling (in China, iPhone Addiction Disorder is an official medical diagnosis), when, for the most part, having the entire internet at our fingertips is a hugely positive thing. Theoretically, many of us can now work from home or even the park. We’re better able to keep in touch with friends and family; we can claw back hours of time by having such a limitless research source in our pockets. But the symptoms of any addiction, however benign seeming, are the same, regardless of whether one’s drug of choice is a dirty secret or wholly permissible. Does your addiction prevent you from doing your work as you’d like? (Who hasn’t banished their phone to another room, or deleted an app or even a social account in order to get their work done without distraction?). Does it affect your relationships? (Who hasn’t sat, scrolling, while their partner shared their day’s events?) Does it cause you to lose track of time? (Don’t bother denying it.) These are classic signs of compulsive behaviours and dependency, and shouldn’t be shrugged off as part and parcel of 21st-century living.

Phone dependency may not be life-threatening, but I do worry that the digital revolution has caused us to become so used to getting everything we want, whenever we want it, we’ve have forgotten that time is finite. That, for every hour spent reading fake news, watching Vimeos or gazing at other people’s avosmash on toast, all of which we will almost simultaneously forget, we are robbing ourselves of an hour’s worth of real, meaningful memories. Pleasurable activities in their own right – listening to a record, watching a film, enjoying the taste of a meal – are being invaded by smartphones instead of being allowed proper space and afforded our full attention. And yet these are the things we’ll look back on with fondness, not a satirical status update on some seemingly psychotic episode from Donald Trump. 

And so, last week, we had a family crisis meeting. No after-school screen time until 6pm and nothing after supper. No phones in bed, in bathrooms, while eating, while watching TV as a family. If you message us past 11pm, someone had better be in hospital. The rest of the time is everyone’s to enjoy online. These rules are either extreme or pitifully baby-sized, depending on your own habit. But half the battle with any addiction is in finally accepting you have a problem, right? 


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