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Illustration by Juliana Neufeld

An acquaintance recently told a story about her small daughter.

She said to her toddler, “Hey, call me,” holding up a thumb and baby finger in the classic gesture for “telephone.”

The tiny tot cocked her head quizzically, and responded by holding her small hand palm up, flat against the side of her face. The child had no experience with a landline – and certainly not with a rotary dial – and the cellphone was so firmly ensconced in her lexicon that she’d developed her own shorthand.

It was this insight, together with a few other little nudges, that had me questioning my own dependence on my smartphone.

Even if you haven’t read Camp Zero, Michelle Min Sterling’s dystopian novel set in a future where citizens numb their pain and deny their crushing reality with a tiny implant known as a “Flick,” well … you probably get the picture.

I’m not alone in pondering the harms of all this screen time.

In his excellent book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King advises aspiring novelists: “Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.” Here, he was referring to succumbing to the powers of television, but his assertion could equally apply to our pocket-computers.

To wean myself off my smartphone’s wiles, I settled on a conscious uncoupling à la Gwyneth Paltrow: an amicable separation with appropriate contact as required.

A clean break wasn’t a reasonable solution for something as integral to my daily life as a refrigerator or washing machine. Sure, people made do without those conveniences. But just as I am unwilling to keep my ice cream in the snow, or beat my linens on rocks, I’m also loath to return to the era of my hot pink Razr flip phone, hunting and pecking out texts, and receiving pixilated images the size of my thumb nail. (What even is that?)

My self-imposed parameters included permission to text, talk and check the news (in a measured and moderated manner, not at all times during the day.) I could Google specific queries, let’s say about a lump behind my ear, or a power outage, and I could purchase an item (a book, for example) that I had already settled on buying.

On the other hand, I could not doom scroll or fall down curated advertising rabbit holes. Online window shopping was verboten; ditto scanning celebrity gossip sites. But my No. 1 rule was even simpler: Do not pick up the phone as a matter of reflex, to banish boredom or dull nascent anxiety. For the short term, at least, Facebook and LinkedIn were also off limits. I don’t use any other networks.

Full disclosure, I’ve never been much of a poster or commenter, but I’ve watched plenty of videos about the application of the perfect foundation, hemmed and hawed about purchasing yet another luxe loungewear item, and taken disproportionate interest in whether Bâton Rouge chicken tenders or Mr. Pretzel Bites (salted, not cinnamon) are back in stock at my local Costco.

If I could turn back time and dedicate those minutes, nay hours, to something meaningful, I might have, oh, I don’t know, finally finished my novel, or learned how to play violin.

If our time is truly our most valuable commodity, then maybe we should marvel at how willingly we while it away. The result of my screen time cleanse (minus the cayenne pepper-lemon water) has been quite interesting.

I’ve read that when smokers kick the habit, their lungs begin to repair themselves almost right away. It may also be true of the synapses of our brains, which have been dulled by hours of letting our habits, proclivities and preferences be mined as data. Once they are awoken from their slumber, they slowly stretch, and then, when fully awake, begin to pop and fizz with unbridled excitement.

In just a few days of deliberate (almost) abstinence, I’ve read two books – if you love a good essay collection, they don’t get any better than Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days; I’ve incorporated 20 minutes of evening stretching into my nighttime routine; and I’ve had more ideas for writing projects in the last week than I had in the preceding year.

Coincidence? Maybe.

But what’s even more interesting, I’ve also had more deliberate and positive interactions with strangers, whether it’s doling out a compliment, laughing at a shared absurdity, or taking an extra few moments to hold open a door.

We’ve given the little computers in our hands far more of our time and attention than they deserve. They’ve become crutches and catchalls, given us exits and excuses. But the funny thing is, when we put them down, we’ll inevitably find other ways to fill our time.

And we may just discover a renewed enjoyment of old pleasures, or entirely new ones, that don’t dull our senses and numb our brains, but reanimate and reinvigorate us in ways we’d almost – but not quite – forgotten.

Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.

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