Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
On one of my last mornings of college, a friend and I stayed up to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. Pink tinted water had been lapping at our feet for about an hour when a group of teenagers appeared. They didn’t notice us — all four were immersed in smartphones — as, one by one, each took a photo of the other three by the lake. Then they looked at each other, said “well, we did it!” and left.
That’s why I’m never going back to a smartphone.
I don’t remember exactly when I decided to get rid of mine. It was one of those college decisions, like growing out my hair. One day I just said I wanted a flip phone. Maybe I wanted a tangible way to flaunt my independence from social media.
Whatever the initial motivation, about a month later I walked out of a Verizon store with an LG Terra VN-210 in my pocket. The only flip phone model they still carried.
Immediately, I noticed how much I wanted to be on my phone. There isn’t much to do on a flip phone. Texting is arduous. There’s no internet to browse. If I turned to my phone for a source of entertainment or to avoid awkwardness, I found little reprieve.
As days passed, I saw just how deep my psychological dependence ran. I had a literal fear of not being stimulated. I was afraid to be to be alone with my own thoughts. It’d become hard to go to sleep without a podcast on, shower without music, or workout without headphones. I had been subconsciously depriving myself of moments alone.
From 2003 to 2011, annual diagnoses of ADHD in children went up by two million. I’m one of that number. Yet, while my smartphone had contributed to making me easily bored, it had stunted my ability to create my way out of it. Instead, I ran from boredom, deeper into the annals of YouTube or Facebook.
If I never let my mind get bored, constantly absorbing other content, I never feel the urge to create for myself. It is from the depths of boredom that come the greatest creative urges. If necessity is the mother of invention, boredom is the mother of creation.
Smartphone use had become my idle mind’s routine, equal parts urge to be entertained and fear of nothing to do.
Living without this option has sensitized me to the world around me. Out to dinner, friends will sit down and take 10 minutes to check their phones — a grace period to catch up on what they missed on the walk over. Only after making sure there’s nothing to miss out on in the digital world can we be present in the real one.
In airports, bus stops, in line at Starbucks, anytime waiting is involved, devices come out. The effect is doubly exclusionary; not only are people unreceptive, but I can’t see what is captivating their attention. I know only it is something I’m not a part of.
I try to embrace having nothing to do in these moments. Something always catches my attention; a bystander’s personal quirk, a colorful outfit, or a spur of creativity from within my own head.
In a more practical sphere, my smartphone had given me incredible leeway to be lazy. I would often look up the same word over and over again without locking in the definition. With Google at our fingertips, we have no need to memorize information. “How to tie a tie” gets googled 500,000 times a month.
Ironically, there are apps like Mute or Thrive Global’s Thrive App, designed to help you limit your smartphone usage. Google is even planning on instituting a usage monitoring program in upcoming versions of Android. But the best way to disconnect is to disconnect your hand from the device.
I won’t recommend that everyone get a flip phone; that isn’t practical. However, without tossing your device, you can still set the conditions for responsible usage.
Get an alarm clock, and leave your phone in another room at a set time every night. See what it’s like to wake up without reaching for it.
Find moments to be with yourself and the people around you, even strangers. Enjoy little interactions with your neighbor or your barista. You’d be surprised how much they can brighten your day.
Don’t leave yourself out of it — take time to let your mind relax. Try just riding the subway for an hour with your thoughts, or taking a quiet drive to work. Invest in a pocket notebook for your thoughts and to do’s, instead of abusing the notes app.
Full disclosure, I do have an iPod touch. It’s actually my old iPhone, sans service. I use it mostly for ride-sharing from the airport, music when I’m driving and podcasts at the gym. It spends most of its time in a drawer in my desk. Sometimes I feel guilty about having it at all, but then I think about how much less efficient trips through the airport would be without travel wallet.
There is a middle ground, one that everyone must find for themselves, between efficiency and addiction. It’s time we stopped using tech on its terms, and start using it on our own.
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis