I’ve been emailing my friend Becky, a newspaper editor in South Dakota, about our growing desire to unplug. We used to compare notes on “Dancing With the Stars,” but lately we’re both watching less TV.
“My eyes have started to reject going from screen to screen,” she emailed me. Instead, she said, she’s been reading, cooking and walking her dog, which led to the discovery of downtown trails and encounters with bison, deer and bighorn sheep.
“I notice a difference,” she wrote. “It has gotten to the point where my phone is strictly for texting and calling people on Sundays. I can’t keep up with it all, and I’m not sure it’s worth trying.”
I told her about my weeklong hiatus from social media, which retrained my thumb from tapping on Instagram feeds. I used that free time online to enjoy personality profiles and read substantive articles on mental illness, gender identity and child development. I found myself looking up the definition of words like “ersatz,” which means artificial or synthetic, an inferior substitute used to replace something natural or genuine.
Just as soon as I had landed on this snazzy new word — a word that says so much in six letters and has that novel z ending — I uncovered an application for it, one that got to the root of my iPhone addiction. Our screen time provides stimulation that is ersatz to real human connection.
Social-media apps purport to connect us with others but actually impair and isolate us, turning us into the kind of people who don’t answer a phone call but text the caller shortly later, only to enter into a rapid-fire exchange that feels urgent but not fulfilling.
It was time to turn to Catherine Price’s 2018 bestseller “How to Break Up with your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back your Life.” Reading this book was like eating broccoli: I knew I was doing something good for myself. It offers an eye-opening assessment of the mental, social and physical effects of extended phone use — the way it fractures our attention spans, hinders our ability to form new memories and undercuts our sleep.
The biggest takeaway for me was the fact that we do not think critically about the impact of our phones. How do certain apps make us feel? Why is it hard to put down our phones? What are they doing to our brains? Who benefits from our addiction? I was disappointed in myself for being lulled, like an unblinking toddler, into all the scrolling and swiping.
Heeding Price’s advice and cutting back on phone time has made me feel more in control, more engaged with my life. It empowers me to tackle other off-balance areas as I head into fall, which will be a season of change. I’m setting better sleep habits and healthier snacking, replacing Dove milk chocolates with peanuts and pecans. One positive change begets another.
I recently read about a priest who hits the gym several times a week and weightlifts 350 pounds. “It gets you used to doing hard things,” he said. “And when you’re doing hard things in this controlled environment, it’s way easier to do hard things elsewhere in your life.”
When praying is hard, I focus on the simple prayers that ground me, beginning and ending my day.
But I’m also realizing that being disciplined can turn the day into one continuous prayer: an act of appreciation for life, for God’s gifts, a love for something greater than self. And that’s a good reason to set aside the phone.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.