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When Did We Stop Talking to Each Other?

Scary statistics around smartphones and why and how to change them.

I walk out of my house onto the streets of London. I immediately manoeuvre around three people who are coming directly at me. Their eyes are glued to their smartphones rather than where they are going. I hop into the busy metro and manage to grab a seat. I automatically reach into my pocket to grab my smartphone - and something stops me. I look up. All around me, I see people obsessively scrolling their smartphones. I shiver.

Eventually, I get to the restaurant where I'm booked for dinner. My friend hasn't arrived yet so I have some time to kill. Usually, I'd scroll my phone like everyone else but I decide to do something else. I decide to people watch. As I look around me, I notice tables full of people who aren't talking. Couples, threesomes, bigger groups - in 90% of the tables there is at least one person on their smartphone. I wonder, when did we stop talking to each other?

Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

I remember the days when you would wander the streets of London and see people looking at the city around them. I remember the days that you would hop on the metro or bus and chat to the person next to you. I remember the days you would talk to each other at the dinner table. What happened to that?

Apparently, we got addicted to our smartphones. Most people check their phone about 150 times a day - or every six minutes. Scarily, about 46% of people say they couldn't live without their smartphones.

In an unplugged study done by the University of Maryland, one in three people said they'd rather give up sex than give up their smartphones. In the same study, the researchers reported the majority of the participants experienced high levels of distress when left without their smartphone for 24 hours.

If these statistics aren't alarming, I don't know what is.

I'm not saying we should abandon our smartphones and go back to the analogue age. I appreciate my smartphone just as much as you do. I enjoy being able to respond to work emails on the go because I am on the go a lot and I love the work I do. I love posting inspirational things on my Instagram feed and getting empowered by the feeds of others. I am grateful for the fact that I can Facetime and WhatsApp my loved ones who are all around the globe because it does keep us more connected.

However, what I do not love is when people are chatting on their smartphones when they should be chatting with the person sitting opposite them at the dining table. It annoys me when people spend five minutes trying to get a perfect Instagram picture of something rather than savouring the moment mindfully. It terrifies me when I hear that 61% of people sleep with their phones right next to their bed.

Worst of all, it's not even the statistics that are the problem but what they lead to. Excessive early childhood screentime can lead to delays in cognitive, social and emotional development. The blue lights emitted from most smartphones and tablets lead to sleep disturbances in all ages. The more time you spend on screens the more likely you are to suffer from obesity. Being active on social media has a direct link to lack of focus, getting easily distracted, and being unable to filter irrelevant information out.

All this, plus our inability to meaningfully connect with each other, are caused by our addictive smartphones. This has to stop. No, we do not have to give up our smartphones. But yes, we do have to create better relationships with them. If we don't, not only will we suffer from them but so will the future generations.

The big question is: how do you start creating a more positive relationship with your smartphone? And, more importantly, how can we start talking to each other again?

Here are some tips to set you on the right path.

  1. Keep the first hour of your day smartphone and screen free.
    Start your day on a positive note. Create a morning ritual that doesn't involve your smartphone (or tablet!) and empowers you and the control you have over your focus and time. Meditate, journal or exercise - or do whatever you want that makes you feel connected to yourself. I do all these three things in my morning ritual and I keep my phone in aeroplane mode if I'm using it to listen to a guided meditation or fun music on my jog.
  2. Keep the last hour of your day smartphone and screen free.
    You'll find it easier to wind down, calm your mind, and slow down your nervous system so that your body gets ready for sleep. This will make it easier for you to fall asleep as well as improve the quality of sleep you actually get.
  3. Make your bedroom a sacred no technology zone.
    Not having your smartphone there will make it so much easier for you to relax as well as follow steps one and two. The only exception to this rule is if you use a kindle to read books in bed ;)
  4. Turn all notifications off on your phone.
    That's right. No WhatsApp messages pinging you every two minutes and no notification when somebody has liked your Instagram post. Stop being reactive and letting your smartphone dictate where your focus is. Take charge of your attention and choose when you want to interact with people through your smartphone.
  5. Keep your phone in your bag if you're with your loved ones.
    It doesn't matter if you're grabbing a coffee, eating dinner, taking a drive, or just relaxing in your living room. If you're with other people, talk to them, interact with them, connect with them. It's rude and disrespectful to bring out your phone if somebody is talking to you as you're sending them the signal that your phone is more important and that they are not interesting enough. Don't do it. Focus on your real-life connections, not the connection you have on your phone.
  6. Have at least one offline day a week.
    That's right. No social media, no browsing the internet, no Whatsapping. Just connecting with yourself, the people around you, and the world in an old-fashioned, real way. This practice will be hard to embed at the start but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Rest assured, if something is urgent, people can still call you.
  7. Have at least one offline holiday a year.
    Or more than one if you're up for a challenge! I started doing this last year when I took a 10 day summer holiday and decided to go fully offline. It was one of the most liberating things I have ever done - and hence I repeated it again over Christmas. Initially, I deleted all the social media apps from my phone to reduce the temptation. It worked. Now, when I have offline days or weeks, I can keep the apps in my phone but I don't even feel the urge to open them because I'm committed to my offline period and using it to connect to the world in a more meaningful way.

These practices are the ones I have brought into my life and I promise you they have changed it. I no longer feel the urge to have my smartphone on hand 24 hours a day 7 days week. I feel freer, less stressed, and more focused.

Most of all, being less connected online has made me feel more connected to the world. How is that for irony?​

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