Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Can You Live Without Your Smartphone?

“I Can Quit Using My Smartphone Anytime."

We made up the quotation above, but it could have come from many conversations we overhear and articles we read. The paradox is hardly surprising, given our bombardment by messages of goodwill about cellphone's awesome power and thrilling beauty.

Apple says, “We believe everyone should be able to do what they love with iPhone.” Samsung calls us to “meet our latest and greatest innovation” in its Galaxy S10. Google boasts that the Pixel 3 is “Everything you wish your phone could do.”

That all sounds rather good, doesn’t it? Stylish, fancy, new phones that give us what we want. Trust Apple, trust Samsung, trust Google. No wonder 46 percent of Americans admit they couldn’t survive without their smartphones.

But there seems to be a dark side, and a belief that cellphone addiction is a genuine malady. In 2018, the World Health Organization identified an internet gaming problem and Britain’s National Health Service created a Centre for Internet Disorders. In the U.S., 40% of consumers worry that they overuse their phones — 60% of those between age 18 and 34 —while 63% seek to cut down on phone time.

Apple’s Tim Cook banned his nephew from social media and Steve Jobs didn’t let his children near an iPad. Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft made cellphones off-limits to their pre-teens. Chris Anderson, lapsed editor of the once-biblical Wired magazine, calls screen addiction “closer to crack cocaine” than a sugar habit. John Lilly, former head of Mozilla, explained to his teenage son, to no avail, that “somebody wrote code to make you feel this way.” Anderson summed up the regret that has led to tech-free homes across Silicon Valley: “We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction, and there were some lost years, which we feel bad about.”

The malady is frequently associated with US hyper-consumerism. But again and again, for example in a classic of narcissistic New York Times journalism, we are told that this is about individual psyches, and are instructed to withdraw from addiction via medical or pop-psychology models.

The idea that smartphone addiction is an individual pathology implies that anxious parents can address it through family-centered remedies and time away from the screen. We might wish to follow that example, both for our children and ourselves. But we’re not told what it costs to engage "addicts" with non-digital substitutes. Perhaps we can’t afford non-digital choices once we’ve used up our money on digital devices, or must keep using them for educational or work reasons.

Individualized solutions for smartphone addiction are available to wealthy families because they enjoy a fantastic range of educational, informational, and cultural resources. Remedies are available in a range of settings, from the militarized regimen of the Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in Daxing, China to breezy, tech-free weekends at Camp Grounded in Mendocino, California.

The basic business models are similar: teach exercise routines and non-electronic forms of communication until patients aching to touch smartphones and tablets, to scroll and thumb as if their lives depended on it, are disciplined, calmed, and ready to be returned to the world as steadier, and somewhat fitter, consumers and employees. Moderation in all things—apart from phone purchase, of course.

Camp Grounded illustrates its wares rather alarmingly, with a photograph of a man shooting a bow and arrow, followed by a description of itself as “Pure, Unadulterated Camp For Grown-Ups.” We can’t wait. But if we really can’t wait, there’s always the “7-Day Phone Breakup Challenge,” which promises “a relationship with your phone that actually feels good”—and by the way, don’t forget to buy the book that tells you how.

Here’s the thing: The moral psychology that informs Silicon Valley’s shared regret with the Gray Lady about addictive technologies reflects an inward-looking egotism that does not address the social scale of smartphone addiction. If addiction is a social ill that our society confronts with individualized solutions, the wealthy and privileged have a leg up in the quest for healthier digital environments. But what if our society opted to care for all of us? Then individualized solutions wouldn’t make sense; they’re too expensive, too fragmented, and too difficult to implement—even if budget “digital detox” compounds are available. We almost forgot—“budget” means under $300 a day. (Of course, as an alternative, you could be converted to Christ by joining Faith Technology’s Digital Sabbath).

We need socialized solutions to digital addiction that provide the greatest utility to the greatest number of people—something like a national social program that distributes a full range of informational, cultural, and educational resources to rival the allure of smartphones and connect to public alternatives to the private world of so much digital communication. Don't touch that dial.