Losing signal: on finding peace by ditching the smartphone


While others are working social media breaks into their schedule


In 2011, with five hours to go for our flight home from Kigali — the Rwandan capital — my university friend (and travel partner) handed me her luggage and stepped out of our homestay. With no Google maps and limited local language skills, she was going to walk to the airport. I, on the other hand, would hail a cab and meet her there.

After a week of travelling together, I had come to expect (and understand) her decision. She is an Orthodox Jew who follows the traditions of the Jewish Shabbat — the practice that starts on Friday at sunset and lasts approximately 24 hours — where observers do not use any form of technology, transportation, electricity and do not write, cook or do anything that might be construed as “work”. By the time she arrived at the airport, Shabbat was over, and she could take the flight home.

To me, an uninitiated person with no “unplugging” traditions of my own, the practice seemed like a jarring transition from a busy week that was usually filled with activity, and lately, lots of screen time. But as my friend explained to me, that is why Shabbat had become so precious to her — because she had to switch off, even if she did not want to.

California-based filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, Tiffany Shlain — also Jewish (“but not very religious”) — developed a similar practice over a decade ago when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she realised how finite their time together was. But her “Technology Shabbat”, also from Friday to Saturday, was focussed just on going tech-free with her family. It is, she tells me, “the best part of my life, my favourite day of the week that completely resets me.”

Breaking up with tech

From Elton John to Christopher Nolan, there are many celebrities who live with minimal technology. The first step for most of them is to get rid of their phones (or to take away its “smart” — and most distracting — features). They probably have their managers screen their phone calls, but what does it look like to have a full-time job and live without the same level of connection that most of us have come to expect of each other?

“It’s not difficult at all,” says Twenty nine-year-old Gautham M, a Bengaluru-based filmmaker who has never owned a smartphone. He carries a “dumb” version for emergencies (and to text), but for the most part, he is wary of too much screen time. I ask him if he does not miss using a smartphone, and he irately reminds me that he cannot miss something he has never experienced. If he needs to hail a cab?“I call my parents and ask them to book one,” he reveals.

Then there is the Chennai-based cultural coordinator who has never owned a cellular phone. Working in the arts-management field, she tells me that, even though there are some negative consequences (like the time she was stuck on the road for five hours during a protest and had no way of informing her mother), she finds it more than worth it. She has never used a ride-sharing app (she takes auto-rickshaws or drives), and does not perform any online banking transactions (hence, not requiring a mobile phone to receive One Time Passwords). “Looking around at the people around me who are glued to their phones, I see that we are losing out on what nature has to offer us because we are so distracted,” she says, requesting anonymity.

Sometimes, returning to the world of smartphones is a necessity. Twenty six-year-old Divya Sharma Dixit did not own one (she had lost hers and did not bother with a replacement) when she moved to Mumbai from Lucknow in 2015. “At that point, giving over a smartphone was easy because my basic necessities did not require it,” she tells me. But she had to get one for her job in email marketing. “We use Slack [the cloud-based offfice communication application] at work, and in Mumbai, I need Ola and Uber. I also have to respond to emails immediately.” Even so, she is careful not to use her phone too much, and carries an inexpensive Vivo phone which does not have an Instagram-friendly camera.

Cell phone nation

Why is screen time so contentious? When I read Katherine Ormerod’s recent book, Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life, the statistics cited were: the typical mobile phone user touches her phone at least 2,500 times a day. 79% of millennials keep their phone by (or in) their bed, with at least half checking it in the middle of the night. Most alarming was the realisation that my own behaviour complied with these statistics.

Irish psychiatrist Dr Harry Barry explains why this is bad. Downtime, he says, is important for the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) of our brains to balance out, and that equilibrium is thrown out of whack thanks to increased stimulation from our screen-based devices. “The next time you slavishly check your mobile phone for the latest email or social media intrusion into your life, pause and reflect,” he writes in his book, Anxiety and Panic: How to Reshape Your Anxious Mind and Brain. “Are you not destroying this healthy balance with this relentless hyping up of your SNS?”

Thomas Kersting, the psychotherapist who wrote the 2016 book Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids, tells me that the only comparable phenomenon from history is when television became mainstream in the 1950s. “People were worried that our children would become hypnotised and fixated on them. Some were,” he concedes. “However, this pales in comparison to today, where nearly every kid has a television, computer, video game consul and record player — all bundled up together in the size of a deck of cards that fits right in their pockets; it is called a smartphone.”

In his work as a counsellor, Kersting has met families who have opted to live with no smartphones and limited (to zero) exposure to television. He believes they are “the normal ones”, adding, “It may not seem practical by today’s standards, but there must be a shift, a correction, and it has to start somewhere.”

As we continue to take stock of a fast-evolving technological landscape and place ourselves within it, clinical psychologist Margie Morris, who authored the recently-released book, Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health and Focus (MIT Press), has some advice. Not all screen time is bad, she says. The key is to make sure we harness it in practical, and useful, ways. “People can creatively adapt tech to align it with what is important to them,” she encourages.

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