By: Ilan Hirschfield | Opinions  | 

Who Are the Servants and Who Are the Princes? Conscious Smartphone Usage in the Modern Age

Whenever I walk in public, I cannot help but think of a verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “I have seen servants [riding] upon horses and princes walking as servants upon the Earth” (10:7). Humans created smartphones slightly over a decade ago in order serve us. They can perform countless tasks. But as smartphones have entrenched themselves in modern society, the roles have switched with us barely noticing in the process. We now serve our technology.

In November of last year, the media website CNET reported that Deloitte’s 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey concluded that Americans collectively checked their phones fourteen billion times per day in the past year. That averages to 52 times per day per person. Anecdotally, I can also tell you that in the course of my day on the Wilf Campus I will constantly encounter someone within my personal vicinity absorbed in a smartphone. It doesn’t make a difference whether they look at a smartphone screen or have headphones plugged in. It is consistent, even pervasive.

I’ll be the first to admit I love using my smartphone, particularly to take pictures, use WhatsApp to keep in touch with others and check my email on-the-go. In fact, I just bought a new one a month ago.

However, if I told you I only use these phone functions, I would have lied. I periodically get sucked in the YouTube or Internet browser black hole until, to my horror, I realize the clock has struck 2:00 a.m. and I must get to sleep. Immediately. I occasionally whip out my phone rather than making conversation with someone else in the empty classroom five minutes before class starts.

This picture begs the question: How can we change our hyper-connected reality? Bringing about this change means rethinking that relationship instead of terminating it, implementing practical yet powerful methods to reduce our screen time. Having frequently thought about and discussed this problem with my friends and family for the last two years, I have concluded that its solutions must address two aspects of the smartphone’s pervasiveness: its sheer physical presence or attraction and its functional diversity. I’ll begin with the aspect of physical presence because it’s the easiest tactic to outline and explain. I can sum it up in three words: no-phone zones. That means putting away your phone during mealtimes, while you walk in public (and no, that doesn’t mean you can wear headphones and listen to music instead), not carrying your phone into bed and doing short errands without your phone on your person. With respect to using your phone in public while walking, if you remember something you must immediately take care of, pull over to the side of the thoroughfare and take care of it. Then, squarely shove your phone back into your pocket and go on your merry way. When eating in the caf with your friends, pressure them to put their phones away as well and just talk, laugh and relax with them. Strive to feel that warmth of eye-to-eye human connection.

Our eyes. What do they have to do with all of this? We are visual beings and our eyes engineer desire. How, then, do our screens create that excitement? They use vibrant colors for icons and text. If the iMessages you send didn’t have that azure blue background, how often would you text other people? “Alright,” you ask. “How can I fight back against these shiny colors to decrease my phone usage?” Easily. Most, if not all, smartphones have a grayscale setting in the accessibility menu under general settings. Enable the setting and watch the color drain from your phone. Just pray that the color doesn’t drain from your face as well.

The problem with our eyes and our phones runs deeper, though. If you have every app set to deliver push notifications, your phone could vibrate, light up and chirp up to hundreds of times a day. Motion and sound catch our attention just as easily as color. You can combat this barrage through changing your notification settings. Turn off the sounds and push email notifications. Oh, and delete your phone’s social media apps as well. Except for Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp; they primarily act as communication apps, not posting like Facebook. Don’t worry. You’ll still have access to your social media accounts but that access will take a different shape.

Congrats! You’ve now eliminated the majority of temptations that stem from the device itself. But once you’ve started using your phone for a legitimate reason, how do you prevent falling into a black hole like the ones I described earlier? You can set a hard usage limit on your phone. The iPhone now has a Screen Time section of its Settings app where you can track your usage time in one day or see your phone behavior over a one-week period. You can also limit usage of each individual app to a designated amount of time. The end result? No more bottomless YouTube pits. Well, you can still fall into the pit. It’s just a bit more difficult.

Essentially, an app will “shut down” once you’ve used it for the allowed amount of time. However, if you want to resume your YouTube free-fall, you can re-enter your device password to unlock the app, creating a certain amount of friction you must overcome to continue using the phone. Android phone users shouldn’t fret because they can download the app ActionDash to track their usage and break it down app-by-app. It can’t shut off apps after a certain amount of usage time like on the iPhone, but it’s a good start. In order to maximize this strategy, you can determine your average daily usage time and then set a goal for a lower usage time. For example, if you determined that your average daily usage is five hours, then you can set a goal for yourself to reach a daily average of three hours over the course of a month, or decrease your usage by a half hour per week. If you reach your goal successfully, then go for broke. Set another goal for decreasing your usage. If you don’t reach your goal, then perhaps re-evaluate your strategy. If you want to give yourself some external motivation to take this project seriously, have a contest with your friends to see who can come out with the lowest screen usage stats at the end of a week or a month. Nothing raises the stakes like some friendly competition.

Despite offering these wonderful solutions to screen addiction enumerated in the last six paragraphs, I haven’t yet addressed the elephant in the room. Why do we use our smartphones so much to begin with? Because of the smartphone’s sheer functional diversity. Put differently, if our phones can perform such a bevy of functions, why use something else to complete them? The final several resolutions attack this siren song with the simple yet powerful democratic principle engraved in the United States Constitution — separation of powers.

The first resolution entails using the “phone” part of the smartphone. However, what does that mean? Use the phone to call people. Since embarking on my journey to break free of smartphone addiction, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of phone calls because they’re a more efficient and personable way to communicate than texting. Who really wants to send endless texts? Here’s a great quick-and-dirty rule for calling versus texting: If your conversation over text will take more than one exchange, then call. Or schedule an in-person meetup if you can. More often than not, you will find yourself calling more than texting, and I consider that a step in the right direction.

What happens, however, when you want to use social media and don’t have the apps for them on your phone? You head to a laptop or desktop computer to access them. You can extend this usage to web browsing and writing emails when sitting down. Check your email accounts on-the-go for responses to those emails, and you’ll be golden. Hammering the constitutional metaphor deeper into the ground, buy different physical objects to fulfill some phone functions: a calendar, a non-smart iPod or music player, a (non-smart)watch, an alarm clock, a timer, a notebook for planning your days, etc. The greater the number of “separatist” elements you find for your phone functions, the more physically you will connect to the outside world and grant your phone less power over your life.

I hope that you can achieve some level of success in using the above-mentioned tactics, but if you still find yourself struggling with excessive smartphone usage, then take one pre-planned day to go cold turkey and debrief on it with a close friend or family member to determine your own strategies for using your phone less.

I must also mention one yet unstated but incredibly powerful implication of these tactics for decreasing phone usage; we must simply learn to accept boredom as a fact of life. As humans, we aim to maximize our engagement, but that will never reach saturation. If you let yourself simply be bored, you can engage yourself in the world in unexpected and creative ways. For example, at the end of last semester I once took the YU shuttle to Beren Campus for Shabbat minyan. I got into the van and my hand instinctively reached for my phone. I paused and stayed my hand, deciding instead to look out the window. As the van sped down Harlem River Drive, I peered at Roosevelt Island through the bridge pillars. It had just rained and fog hovered over the river, stretching lazily towards the sky. My eye moved up towards the skyscrapers and caught a breathtaking view: a mass of fog had collected just below the tip of one of the buildings, giving it the impression of having been partially erased by the fog. I had a full 45 seconds of bliss taking in this view, and by the time it was over, I realized that I missed the opportunity to take a picture of what I saw. But I felt at peace with that. The memory of that image lives in my mind and I can retrieve it at a moment’s notice.


Photo Caption: An assortment of modern smartphones
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons