Shekhar wasn’t just active on social media, he probably lived in it. Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook stories and updates included memes, what he cooked, what he ate, which mall he was at, which movie he was about to watch, motorcycle rides, travel photos… social media was a real-time catalog of his life.
But for the last two months, he had fallen off the radar. Fearing the worst, I called him. I didn’t expect him to answer. He’s the sort of person who doesn’t answer a call but watches the phone ring. And as soon as the ringing ends, he texts the caller, “What’s up!”
But he answered. It was my turn to ask him, “What’s up?”
“Mom died two months ago,” he said.
I was stunned. After I finally found my voice, I asked, “How?”
“It wasn’t the virus,” Shekhar said. “She was healthy. Then one evening, her heart suddenly stopped beating. And the doctors couldn’t revive her.”
Shekhar had always been closer to his mom than to anyone else, even his wife. I asked how he was feeling. Living without her was something he was forced to learn, he said, though he never wanted to learn it.
“Is that why you’ve gone missing from social media?” I asked.
“You know the worst part? Just two days before she left us, she asked me to buy vegetables and I got upset. I told her to cut me some slack. She complained I used my phone a lot. And we got into an argument because I was scrolling Instagram when she said that. And she bought the vegetables herself, though my wife insisted on going.
“Forget telling her that I loved her. I didn’t even get a chance to make her happy one final time. So how am I feeling? ‘Like a jerk’ is putting it mildly.”
For the first time ever, I heard Shekhar cry. And nothing I could say would console him. After all, he’d unexpectedly lost the person he loved most. More than losing her, he hated the circumstances that transpired before her demise.
Shekhar couldn’t stop cursing himself. The reason? His phone.
Our Toxic Relations With Our Phones
Most of us don’t experience such punishing emotions that make us want to break the phone in half. (If you have, my heart goes out to you.) But we share a love-hate relationship with our phones. We want to avoid it but go back to it over and over again.
About 90 percent of the time, using our phones leaves us in a worse-off mood. We feel like crap when we see others’ highlight reels and assume it’s their real life. We feel irritated when we check emails that add to our work, most of which is already futile. And in the rare case when something on the phone makes us feel good, the feeling lasts less than a minute.
It’s like being in a toxic relationship where your selfish partner manipulates you into doing things that benefit him. You’re aware you’re being manipulated. You know you need to get out. But the harder you try, the deeper you get sucked in.
Your phone manipulates you through notifications. It behaves as if it does this because you’re important, as if spending time on it is your “me-time.” But in reality, it sends you notifications to make you touch it up to 5,427 times a day. That’s not something a good partner does.
Like a toxic partner, your phone also takes control of all your decisions. This starts with the phone deciding which apps and emails you should attend to. But over time, it dictates the places you should visit, and food you should eat (because they’ll look good on Instagram), and which news you should keep checking (because you need to “stay informed”). It becomes the first thing you touch when you wake up and the last thing you touch before you sleep.
The worst part? You’re never happy. Doomscrolling and Facebook depression and are real terms that occur due to overexposure to the screen. And research proves that this exposure causes unhappiness. But you don’t need research to tell you that. You already feel it in your gut, don’t you?
On average, we spend close to four hours on our phones each day. That’s almost 24 hours each week. That’s like spending your entire Sunday on the phone. No sleep, no hanging out with people you love, no activities that rejuvenate you. Just scrolling the phone. Imagine the toll this will take on your mental health three months, six months, one year down the line!
I admit, breaking up with your phone is tough. It’s not even advisable. Used the right way, your phone is a useful tool that increases your productivity.
What if, instead of breaking up, you just began spending less time with your phone? What if you halved the time you spend on it? What could you do with that spare time?
You could spend more time with your partner. You could play with your kids in the park, something they complain you don’t do enough of. You could take a quiet walk in the neighborhood. You could meditate.
Turn off the notifications so you take control of your attention.
Limit the amount of time you spend scrolling apps. (If you can’t find the willpower to do this, you can use app blockers.)
Call one friend and have a meaningful conversation instead of texting twenty people with acronyms like “rn,” “ikr,” and “k”.
And when you’re done with work, put the phone in a place that’s not easy to reach, so you don’t feel tempted to touch it repeatedly.
This will feel tough in the beginning. You’ll feel like the world is caving in. You’ll struggle with the thought that everyone has forgotten you. You’ll worry that something could go horribly wrong at work while you were unavailable.
But as time goes by, you’ll realize that your fears were misplaced, that they were just False Evidence Appearing Real. You’ll feel relieved when people don’t try to reach out to you all the time because you have more time to do what you want.
You can meditate, play in the sandpit with your kids, or work on your side project because you want to, not because you’re forced to. You can start craving validation from yourself more than from others. You can learn that you’re enough by yourself, that you don’t need to be stuck in a toxic relationship. You can discover your real self.
Just put the phone away for a few moments each day and live in the present.
Make Some “Real” Me-Time”
I asked Shekhar what he had done in the two months since his mother passed away. He said he visited Manali to take some time off. Manali is a beautiful place, particularly when it snows.
“I hope to see some pics of the trip,” I said.
“I barely took any photos,” Shekhar said. “It felt strange, but also liberating. I wasn’t enslaved by the phone. I didn’t worry how much battery was left, how strong the signal was, or whether I should use the landscape, portrait, or panoramic lens to capture the snow. I used my own eyes instead of a six-inch screen to soak in the view. I saw the place the way my mom wanted me to see it. I just wish I could’ve done it with her.”
After our call, I sat quietly for some time. Then I switched off my phone and went for a walk.