Sometimes I think I’m neurotic regarding my smartphone usage because lately it’s often between 3-4 hours per day, sometimes more, and I am always wishing I could use my phone less. The other day, however, I inadvertently saw the “screen time” on a stranger’s phone and it was 11 hours; this really put things in perspective. Maybe my phone usage feels crazy because I pay a lot of attention to it, but others may spend the whole day staring at their phones without even thinking about it. When I go on public transport I try to avoid looking at my phone, but I notice 90% of other people on the train/bus/MRT are staring at their phones the entire trip.
Modern humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and whatever we came from was obviously around much longer. The majority of that time there couldn’t have been that much going on (i.e. lots of free time and what many would call boredom). These are the circumstances under which our brains developed. Even when I think back to my childhood in the 90s, there were not as many options available to distract yourself as we have today, and I was often bored. Basically we could watch TV or talk on the phone (or maybe play video games if you had any); aside from these, I guess people would spend time with friends or pursue their hobbies/interests. When we had to wait for something, all we could do is wait (or maybe read a book if you brought one).
People nowadays are afraid of being bored; they think being bored is bad because it’s not ‘productive’ or because they could be ‘entertained’ instead. Once we have been conditioned by constant entertainment and stimulation, being bored feels really terrible. However, recent neuroscience research has shown that being bored and letting the mind rest is important for our mental/brain health, which makes sense since boredom has been a fact of life for most of human history. One thing that is ironic, though, is that some of the articles I read about the importance of doing nothing and allowing yourself to be bored actually said that a benefit of being bored is that it can boost your productivity. Come on! Why are we so obsessed with productivity? Just let yourself chill and be bored – why do people need to have ‘increased productivity’ listed as a benefit to do something healthy and natural?
The time when we feel bored is the time when we are most likely to think of new ideas, creative projects, or things we want to do in our lives. Call this ‘productivity’ if you want, but I just call it living a non-shitty life. If we prevent ourselves from being bored (through mindless/compulsive consumption), we are limiting our agency to make positive changes in our lives by becoming passive consumers. This is, of course, what many companies want because our attention is what makes them money.
TVs are good for keeping us distracted, and so are computers, but both are much too large and unwieldy to carry around and use all day. Smartphones are different; they are always with us so they give us the opportunity to never have to engage with boredom or that pesky present moment again – hooray!
Mindfulness can be described as living with a focus on the present moment, while being aware and accepting of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. I’m sure most people have heard of mindfulness and are aware of its benefits – if you haven’t, this information can be easily found online. In my experience, the periods of my life when I felt most at peace and connected with the present moment were those when I intentionally didn’t use my phone very much (and social media not at all). Much of smartphone usage is essentially the opposite of mindfulness; we use smartphones specifically so we don’t have to face the boredom of the present moment, or because we want to engage with ‘something else’ that is not our present reality.
While it seems possible to use smartphones mindfully, many apps have been specifically designed to get you hooked on using them, making it difficult to use them mindfully. I think this ties into my post on intentionality. When we do something with purpose, it is beneficial and adds something to our lives. When we can’t stop ourselves from checking our phones or scrolling, we are essentially livestock being milked for our time and attention, with no concern for our wellbeing.
The problem, as I see it, is not so much smartphones themselves, but the way we use smartphones. The reason it is so easy to spend hours watching TV, scrolling social media, and playing video games is because these are supernormal stimuli. A supernormal stimulus is something that appeals to our primal nature, but is a more extreme (unnatural) form. Junk food appeals to our need for calories to not starve; porn appeals to our sex drive; social media (or constant texting) appeals to our need for social connection; constant scrolling appeals to our curiosity and desire for information; video games appeal to our desire for fun/entertainment; TV/videos also appeal to several of these. Since these things appeal to our natural desires, it is easy to take them to the extreme and lose control when they are too readily accessible. This is then followed by acclimation and addiction (due to feeling bad when we no longer consume these things). Having access to several supernormal stimuli on a device that is always with us exacerbates this problem.
Smartphones have already shaped the world to such an extent that it is difficult to function without one. It’s not as easy to meet new friends ‘out in the world’ as it once was, I’m often asked to scan a QR code in class or even in restaurants, most/all of my work and social communication in Taiwan is done using Line or some other social app, I was required to download the Yamaha app to register for something when I bought my scooter, etc. The world has changed in such a way that we basically have no choice in this matter, to the detriment of those of us who struggle with compulsive/addictive smartphone or internet use.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this several times in previous posts, but my mind frequently drifts back to the years when I didn’t use any social media and intentionally didn’t use my phone during most of the day. Even though I was frequently bored, I felt that that was the time in my life when I experienced the most personal growth; I had the time and space to reflect on my life, thoughts, and experiences, and also was able to just relax into whatever my current circumstances were.
It was during those years that I took several solo international trips (to Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore). During most of that time, I intentionally left my phone in my bag and only used my Ricoh GRII camera to document whatever caught my eye (similar to my experience in Japan described in On Cameras and Intentionality). Travel is really a whole different experience when you’re fully immersed in the moment and not trying to share everything you’re doing or prevent boredom. Because I was often ‘bored,’ I was much more open to those around me and willing to go on more little ‘side-adventures’ than I normally would, and I greatly value my memories of the short connections and interactions I had with strangers during those trips.
On the other hand, my experience when I went on a trip to Hong Kong with friends was completely different. I intentionally didn’t get a SIM card for my phone because I wanted to immerse myself in the experience. What I didn’t expect was that it would make me extremely uncomfortable to be sitting on public transport with friends who weren’t willing to chat or have conversation because they were so distracted by their phones. Somehow it is much easier to be bored and doing nothing when I’m alone, or if someone else is doing the same thing as me, but if I’m with a friend and they are constantly checking their phone while I’m trying to not use my phone so much, it makes me restless and dissatisfied (and makes me want to be alone instead).
As usual, I’m still seeking balance and mental/emotional peace in a world that constantly encourages the opposite. Feel free to share your insights and experiences with me.
Check out this Psychology Today article.