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We’re using mobile devices in unhealthy ways, but they’re so indispensable that we can’t just prohibit them. The real target is distraction

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Photo illustrations by The Globe and Mail (source: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Benjamin Leszcz is a Toronto-based writer and entrepreneur.

On June 25, 1857, a few dozen men gathered in Biddulph Township, north of London, Ont., to raise a local family’s barn. As was standard at the time, the worksite lacked a barista but had a “grog boss,” who dispensed whisky throughout the day. The booze was believed to sustain the men’s vigour, but it often achieved the opposite. After a particularly wet lunch that day, a pair of Irish immigrants, James Donnelly and Patrick Farrell, engaged in fisticuffs. After an initial tussle was broken up, Donnelly tacked back, fatally ending the dispute with a logging handspike to Farrell’s head.

Such barbarism was a sign of the times. For many, life in the 19th-century New World was an endless open bar. Rum, whisky and beer flowed from morning to night, consumed by men, women, even children. With unfettered access to an addictive drug — and meagre understanding of its risks— people behaved as you’d expect: They went hog-wild.

Still, by the time of the handspike incident, the temperance movement had taken root, linking alcohol to a range of ills. Fast-forward to today — through prohibition, drunk-driving laws, Alcoholics Anonymous and more — and we’ve developed a far healthier relationship to booze, premised on a basic consensus about its proper and appropriate role in our lives. We have developed norms — rules that govern our attitudes and behaviours, shaping our understanding of where, when, how and why to drink.

So, on a weekday afternoon in April, 2020, as I fixed myself a Manhattan, I thought to myself: Whoa. During the early-lockdown roller coaster, I, like others, found solace in alcohol. If I couldn’t go elsewhere physically, at least I could neurochemically.

Still, thanks to entrenched norms, I understood that my workday cocktail was transgressive; I soon returned to the baseline of healthy moderation. Alcohol may be a problem for many, but with an understanding of what healthy looks like, there is a path to reform.

I am far more concerned about a different addiction we’ve indulged over the past 16 months, this one with the abandon of 19th-century barn-raisers: our phones.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were spending more than one in five waking minutes looking at our phones. Then, screen-time became a virtue— stay home, scroll Insta, stop the spread — and the only game in town. Phone use spiked; our devices tightened their grip.

Today, the neural pathways carved into our brains by so many buzzes, pings and likes are more ingrained than ever. Our phone use is not merely immoderate; it’s downright depraved.

We use our phones at breakfast, lunch and dinner; while we’re talking to our friends, our partners and our children. We use while we’re working, while we’re watching movies, while we’re hiking in the woods. We use until the moment we sleep, from the moment we wake — and sometimes in between. We use in the bathroom, and we use while we drive. We use in front of our children, and then, when they become tweens, we buy them their own phones, giving them a pocket-sized dopamine-dispenser as they enter the phase of life at which roughly 90 per cent of lifelong addictions begin.

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A young man checks his cellphone at a COVID-19 care facility in New Delhi.Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Unlike whisky, however, our phones are indispensable — sources of information, convenience, connection and delight. No temperance movement will save us, and even the fiercest latter-day Luddites aren’t advocating for prohibition. But our phones’ inevitability belies their perniciousness.

A growing body of research affirms what we intuitively know: Phone use degrades the quality of our sleep, our productivity and our creativity. It is linked to heightened levels of anxiety and depression, diminished sexual satisfaction, compromised child-parent relationships and so much more. But — as climate activists know — even the most alarming studies won’t shift behaviour at scale. For that to happen, culture itself needs to change. We need to update our shared beliefs, attitudes and behaviours to define more clearly where, when, how and why to use our phones. We need a new set of norms.

Such widespread societal change seldom comes easy. Yet, sometimes it does. The past 16 months have been a case study in norm reinvention, from masking to greeting (hello elbow touch!) to fashion (goodbye hard pants!). Today, as we emerge from lockdown, re-entering restaurants, offices and homes, society is transforming once more. The moment is ripe for change. And who doesn’t wish to return to real life with maximum gusto? Who could justify visiting a beloved bar, and then doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing on our couches for the past 16 months?

Alcohol norms remind us that it’s often undesirable to be drunk. Phone norms should remind us that it’s often undesirable to be distracted. Put differently, the cost of alcohol can be measured in lost sobriety; the cost of phones can be measured in lost attention. And attention, our capacity to focus, is perhaps our scarcest commodity. According to the Stanford attention expert David Strayer, unless you’re among the 2 per cent of the population he calls “supertaskers,” it is literally impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking, for 98 per cent of us, is a myth. As the technology critic Howard Rheingold puts it, “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

We know that distracted driving can cost lives. To understand the cost of full-blown distracted living, we need to measure the gap between attentional aspiration and attentional achievement. In other words, by paying attention to where we pay attention, we can develop a normative framework for phones that makes us happier, calmer and more mindful. Call it enlightened self-interest: How can we ensure our phones serve us, and not the other way around? To achieve this—to reckon properly with our pandemic drug of choice—we need to establish boundaries. We need structure. We need rules.

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Rule No. 1: When paying attention to other people, we should not use our phones.

The pandemic has underscored the immeasurable benefits of face time over FaceTime. Making eye contact, resting a hand on a shoulder, we can connect most strongly, diving deep and achieving catharsis. Yet, too often, even when we’re together, our phones are still with us. As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle writes, when a phone is in sight we are “pausable.” With the looming prospect of our date raising a finger and locking eyes sympathetically as they answer their phone—or even just subtly glancing downwards—it’s no wonder that we might prefer discussing the Kardashians’ deepest problems than our own. Phones accentuate our vulnerability, a totem reminding us that something-more-important could arise at any moment.

In a study affirming this dynamic, Oxford Internet Institute researchers prompted pairs of people with conversation topics, and divided them into two. For the first group, researchers left a phone resting, face-down, on a nearby desk. For the second group, the phone was absent. After their conversations, pairs in the “phone present” group reported far lower levels of empathy and trust than those in the “phone absent” group. The researchers concluded that the “mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust.”

Phones don’t just diminish our performance as friends; they also make us inferior parents. It’s been nearly 50 years since the psychologist Edward Tronick’s famous “Still-Face Experiments,” in which mothers erase expression from their own faces, causing their infants to become upset. We know that eye contact is integral to establishing secure attachment in babies. Yet we replicate the still-face experiment endlessly, using phones in front of our kids, and entering what the psychologist Jesper Aagaard calls “a state of suspended animation with all the vitality of a mannequin doll. Only the thumbs are moving.”

Our phones also make us impatient: A University of Michigan study found that the more deeply caregivers were absorbed in their phones, the more likely they were to respond harshly to their children’s attention-seeking behaviour. The magnetic draw of the phone subjugates everything else—even a heartfelt appeal for parental affection. When we return from phone-land, we are quicker to anger than before, freshly frustrated by our attentional limitations, seldom pausing to ask why our children should suffer for our addiction.

If we can admit, at least, that we can only truly do one thing at a time, then the decision to stow away our phones, and focus on our friends, or children, or colleagues, should become obvious. And if we must use our phones, let’s do so sparingly, with polite acknowledgement that they are inferior companions to the people around us. We should extend this courtesy to our children, too; I try to apologize to my young kids anytime I use my phone in front of them, trying to convey not only that what I’m doing is a bit rude, but also, that it is unquestionably far less important than them. Some simple, supporting guidelines: Phones should never appear at a meal or on a bar. Never in a meeting. And never in the bedrooms of our children, who deserve at least one place in the world where they can enjoy our undivided attention.

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Rule No. 2: When paying attention to ideas, put away our phones.

Whether composing an e-mail, solving a thorny problem, or following a rich story or argument, we often need all the attention we can muster. Adrian Ward, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, echoes the findings of the Oxford study, writing that our phones exact a “brain drain” just by virtue of being in the room. In a study he led, subjects turned off their phones and placed them either face-down on their desk; in their bag (or pocket); or in another room. They then took a series of tests focused on reading, math and pattern recognition.

The results were striking: Performance was strongest with phones in the other room; it diminished with phones in bags; and diminished further with phones on desks. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process—the process of requiring yourself to not think about something—uses up some of your limited cognitive resources,” Dr. Ward writes. If you find this improbable, you’re not alone: Nearly 90 per cent of subjects insisted that phone location had no bearing on their performance.

At my previous company, a design studio, I instituted a boardroom phone ban. It was wonderful: Interstitial moments came to life with spontaneous conversation, and meetings themselves became more focused and productive. But I’d have liked to ban phones from desks altogether. Wouldn’t this be sensible? Our phones stand between us and our best work. They are a physical barrier to the flow state, that magical zone in which we are fully present, wholly absorbed by the task at hand. (One can only imagine how much better this essay would be if I’d followed my own rule, instead of keeping my phone on my desk as I write.)

Phones also mess with our capacity to learn and to read. Our phones keep us in a state of what Dr. Turkle calls “hyperattention.” Constantly grazing on bite-size snacks of information, we have lost our appetite for a proper meal. This can make focusing on a lecture, or a book, seem impossible; the pace can feel agonizingly slow. Marshall McLuhan writes, “A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.” In the competition for our attention, phones have an unfair advantage over the written or spoken word. Keeping a phone nearby while reading a book is like putting a plate of fries beside your salad.

Our phones use our brains, then, even when our brains don’t want to use our phones. So anytime we want to really use our brains—to work, to learn, to read—we should put our phones away. As such, our phones should never join us for meetings, nor should they be on our desks, at least not by default. They should never enter a classroom. And they should never be near a book we’re reading. French fries are delicious, but sometimes you need a salad.

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Rule No. 3: When paying attention to nothing at all, we should put away our phones.

Nowadays, we text in line at the supermarket. We listen to podcasts while we wash the dishes. We scroll Instagram while we pee. Our phones join us at the park, the dock and the hiking trail. They have robbed us of the moments we could be free, letting our minds rest or wonder. And the cost is enormous.

For one, our phones deplete us, turning leisure into work. Incoming texts demand a response; sharing photos means editing photos and writing captions. As a result, our to-do list grows endlessly, and our actual free time dwindles. Instagram might feel like the polar opposite of productive labour, but, then, mindless scrolling is basically the engine of the modern economy. (According to one estimate, Facebook makes about a penny per user per minute.) So many apps are built to invoke rage, envy, lust, compulsion. It’s not exactly the ideal post-work—or pre-bed—wind-down. (Keeping my phone plugged in, on the kitchen counter, feels like a way of protecting my evenings, and certainly my nights.)

More, in phone-land, work-work is only a flick away. If we once celebrated phones as liberators—we’re responding to e-mails, but we’re poolside!—we now see that the opposite is true: We’re poolside, and we’re still responding to e-mails. It’s a radical perversion of the early dream of capitalism—that productivity gains would free up time “for the full development of the individual,” per Karl Marx. Instead, as Jenny Odell writes, we “find every last minute captured, optimized or appropriated as a financial resource.” Our phones are why we feel busier than ever; they annihilate free time, leaving us stretched, stressed and exhausted.

With no time for nothing, we may also deprive ourselves of our best ideas. Ludwig Wittgenstein celebrated the bed, the bath and the bus as the most fertile venues for great ideas. Mindlessly lathering our hair or staring out the window, our prefrontal cortex relaxes and deep insights reveal themselves. Mozart and Einstein, among others, made space for nothing on long, solitary walks. (Had Einstein been into Serial, we might not have modern-day theoretical physics.) Our phones, however, make solitude elusive; by stealing our attention, they rob us of the space to sit with our thoughts; to process experiences and memories; to build a stable sense of self. It’s a cruel paradox: Our phones promise endless connection. Instead they take solitude—what the philosopher Paul Tillich calls “the glory of being alone”—and leave us with loneliness—”the pain of being alone.”

An attention economy assigns no value to paying attention to nothing. But after drinking all day from the firehose of the internet, we need to protect space for nothing— space for reprieve, for digestion, for day-dreaming. The opportunities to do so are endless: Any moment in which we are doing nothing, we should try actually doing nothing. And when visiting places with great regenerative power—anywhere in nature, for one—we should ditch our phones, too. Of course, our phones should never enter our bedrooms. (With luck, the alarm clock industry is on the cusp of a boomtime.) And, ambitious though it may be, perhaps we can even try to go to the bathroom all by ourselves.

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Children watch a video on a mobile phone together after a training session at a playground boxing gym in Lagos.Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

A cultural shift, of sorts, may already be under way. But we need to go beyond popular arguments, per the documentary The Social Dilemma, which focuses on the evils of push notifications and social-media algorithms. “The ‘content’ of a medium,” Prof. McLuhan writes, “is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” The culprit, in other words, is the hardware, not the software. In the war against weapons of mass distraction, our best hope is to avoid the battlefield altogether. So in those moments we deem worthy of our attention, we must create physical distance between ourselves and our phones.

It won’t be easy. It’s been nearly 500 years since Blaise Pascal declared, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Humans have been beating back a sense of dread since time immemorial. Leave it to the evil genius of capitalism—supercharged by technology and motivational psychology—to devise the perfect antidote to the human condition: a portable distraction machine to shield us from the threat of boredom, uncertainty or loneliness. It’s no wonder we’re hooked, nor that we’ve become a society of enablers, overlooking one another’s degeneracy in exchange for permission to indulge ourselves.

It’s time for an intervention. Withdrawal symptoms, I can assure you, are light. For, we all know that phone-free days—whether it’s a weekly digital sabbath or an annual vacation—are the most glorious days. When I harangue my dinner companions to ditch their phones, they call me a crank, but then happily oblige (usually). Deep down, we all want to ditch our phones, because we know that when we do, we clear the path to achieve our most vital aspirations: to build loving relationships. To realize our creative and intellectual potential. To find peace.

As the pandemic ebbs and real life returns, let’s infuse the new normal with new norms. Let’s agree on a baseline for healthy, appropriate phone use. Even if we fall short, at least we’ll be able to identify the gap between achievement and aspiration. As we gaze across that gap, I hope that we’ll see neither discomfort nor dread, but rather the bright, shining light of our own humanity. And I hope we’ll bask in that light as we work together on the project of our lifetimes, to learn truly who we are.

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