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Phones have taken over. Can we switch off?

Smartphones have revolutionalised the way society is experienced, spatialized and performed. Never before in human history has information been shared so quickly and freely across the globe and within local and international communities. 

The way we work has shifted, sped up by the pandemic, and engrained into the fabric of society, with work from home, remote learning and online team organisers taking a newly dominant role.

Here at Oxford, we earnt our place through academics alone, with no social profile needed to help secure our place. But here at Oxford is where that path comes to an abrupt end. How do we transition from academic excellence into real-world success stories? Sure, some will see academia as the end goal, but the vast majority of us see Oxford only as a stepping stone to going out and making a productive difference in the World. 

When we think of the most successful University-aged figures in the World, Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafi, are some activists that come to mind, yet the vast majority are new influencers and celebrities like Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, TikTok’s Charlie D’amelio and Millie Bobbie Brown. Sure, it does derive from how you determine success, but having a celebrity platform today is vital to many roles, including philanthropic ones, that were more accessible in the past.  For these roles having a presence on social media is vital, none the more so for anything political or involving civil society. 

Jobs like journalism, business, media, investment, diplomacy, and more are all dependent on networks whose growth is fostered through social media. Whether it be Twitter for journalists or LinkedIn for business the impossibility of switching off is very real. Add to this the hundreds of daily emails. Messages and reminders once only received in person during work hours are now inseparable from our being with mobile phones glued to our hips. 

But it’s not just in the workplace that devices have changed our world. Social media has become the main source of entertainment for countless young people. Gone are the days of playing with toys, in are the smartphone apps and screens. This revolution occurred during our childhoods – while I may have had my first phone at 12, many today are getting devices much younger – think 5 years old for iPads. 

There’s an interesting psychology around phones that is alarming. In 2021 the average UK adult spent 4 hours on their phone. Half of all Americans agree with the following statement: “I can’t imagine a life without my phone”. Shockingly, nearly 1 out of every 10 American checks their phone during sex.

Catherine Price’s book ‘How to break up with your phone in 30 days’ is a great starting point for combatting this issue of modernity.

She outlines how our phones are designed to addict us with feedback. So the argument goes, if the brain learns that checking your phone usually results in a reward and subsequent dopamine release, the brain wants to check it more often. Dopamine is central to motivation and causes excitement. To captivate attention social media apps rely on intermittent reinforcements which always means new and surprising content shows up on your feed. They also harness FOMO to ensure we feel the need to be constantly updated. And tap into our human need to be loved, by making us want to be more popular on social media. 

Social media is using the population as free labour, collecting our data after we produce it for free and then bombarding us with paid advertising that further generates revenue. We gain nothing but a shorter attention span. By interfering with our short-term memory, we are at risk of forgetting most of life’s experiences and being unable to fully experience the present moment. 

So the effects are explicit, but how to balance this knowledge whilst simultaneously growing a career, maintaining a social life, and unlearning the habits of social media all while resisting the urge for constant phone-checking? Sounds pretty difficult, right?

Price maintains that you can improve your concentration, rebuild your attention span and improve your memory. The first step through mindfulness is to be more present. Then the next step is the ‘technology triage’ to understand your personal usage and take action. Price recommends deleting social media apps entirely and only accessing them on a laptop or iPad. However, what social media has done so well is integrate forms of communication within an entertainment app – think Snapchat, which focuses on communication, but has Stories, Tiles and Reels all waiting to draw you in – Instagram is the same. 

Price then suggests coming back to real life and taking up a hobby or past-time you never had the time to do and taking up a sport. All this by week 1? 

Week 2 focuses on changing habits like notifications, deleting apps that steal your time and changing where you charge your phone. Setting no-phone boundary zones means a complete detachment. And one that many of us in Oxford are guilty of: ‘phubbing’. This is when you interact with your phone whilst in an active social engagement. 

Week 3 focuses on reclaiming your brain through mindfulness practice, an evermore conventional way of combating the freefall of time in the current age. This week concludes with a trial separation of 24 hours from your phone. 

The final Week 4 includes a ‘Phast’ when the phone is turned off at particular times and events, and a ‘digital sabbath’ with phone-free weekends. 

That all sounds lovely and convincing when on paper, but how feasible is it? I fear that in this modern age we have passed a threshold from which there is no return at an individual level. To isolate oneself digitally means to disadvantage oneself. Taking back control from social media and smartphones will require a concerted effort, but one that is unlikely to materialise. 

So the key then is finding a balance. Resisting the TikToks and Instagram apps of the World. This is more straightforward. I for one have stopped scrolling Instagram feeds and limited screen time for my apps but I still find myself on my phone. Wherever one time-wasting app is curtailed, another develops. 

Over the vacation, I will try the 30-day plan, and see how successful it really is. Will you?

Image credit: Marko Verch/CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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