On any given day, teens in the United States spend about nine hours using media for enjoyment, according to the report by Common Sense Media. My friends and I sleep fewer hours than that. Seventy-eight percent of us have phones, and nearly all of us use some kind of social media. It feels like anyone not plugged into social media or texting constantly will be hopelessly lost in conversation at school the next day.
My parents tease me about how much I use my phone. It’s always in my hand at home. Even at the dinner table, my phone is right next to me. My parents always say I can’t go without my phone and I always answer back with yes I can. One day I thought to myself, can I?
For a whole week, I, a 16-year-old girl living in New York City, gave up my iPhone. I use a laptop at home, so I could check the news and do my homework. I wasn’t giving up communication, I was giving up instant communication. I wanted to see if our phones really were our lifeline.
My parents did not immediately grasp that I was actually going to go without my iPhone for a week. My dad didn’t believe me. My mom instantly grew worried at the thought of me traveling on the streets of Manhattan without a way to contact her. I promised her I would only go to school and back without my phone. She calmed down.
My friends were less calm. Why, they demanded, would I do this? Some asked if I were grounded. Some asked if this was my New Year’s resolution. It was unfathomable that a teen would purposely give up her phone for a week.
But as an aspiring computer scientist eager to work in the world of technology, I am aware of the role technology plays in our lives. I often question why we need thousands of apps at our fingertips. The basic uses of a phone are valid, but how about everything else we spend hours surfing, tweeting off of, or posting pictures on? The world of technology controls our conversations, and I was purposely taking myself out of the loop.
The first day was the toughest. It didn’t hit me that I was truly doing this until 6:30 Monday morning when I woke up what sounded like a fire alarm but was really the ancient alarm clock I never use. It took what seemed like an eternity to figure out how to stop the beeping. I usually wake up to the sound of Taylor Swift coming from my iPhone. I sighed. This was going to be a long week.
On my 25-minute daily subway ride to school, I usually listen to my music on my phone and doze off. Having no music turned out to be the hardest part of the whole experiment. At first, I was so bored. Everyone around me had their earphones in except me. I had to resist the urge to rip out someone’s earphones and put them in my ears so I could listen to anything besides the clattering of the train cars. I tried singing the songs in my head but it didn’t work. (I couldn’t capture Beyoncé’s voice perfectly.)
I ended up doing some reading for my book club. “The Martian” turned out to be a pretty interesting book, and now I won’t have to worry about reading it the day before my book club meets. Without music, I was forced to get actual work done, and I found I was more awake for school.
Once I arrived, I saw everyone sitting in the hallway, flipping through their phones or listening to music, even while they chatted with their friends. Those who weren’t using their phones keep it right next to them. Even during class, many students had their phones on top of their desks like a security blanket, though we’re obviously not allowed to use them during class time.
Before my experiment, I did the same thing. I always had my phone on my desk during class. I used to excuse myself and go to the bathroom to check my phone or text my mom about my latest test grade. But for what? Why the urgency?
The rest of my first day without a phone wasn’t that hard. I felt myself at multiple times subconsciously reach for my phone like a phantom limb. It was weird but manageable.
The rest of my week was surprisingly easy. The need to have my phone on me at all times went away. I felt no desire refresh my Instagram feed between classes. Even when I came home and had access to my laptop, I stopped immediately checking Facebook. My morning train rides were filled with productive thinking and reading time instead of sleepy music listening. The need to constantly have my phone out was dwindling.
Going into this experiment, I thought I would prove how much a teen needs their phone. But now I was realizing the exact opposite. Being out of the loop with my friends didn’t alter my social life drastically. I was able to catch up with any group messaging I missed fairly quickly — in real life conversation.
Once in awhile, I did miss the thing. When PSAT scores came out, I had to wait until 9th period when I had access to a school computer to check while everyone else was able to check on their phones in about a minute between classes. And when everyone was obsessed over the latest new app craze (called Stop), I had to wait until I got my phone back to download it and play it with my friends. But besides those inconveniences, I really didn’t need my phone at all.
Now that my experiment is over, here’s what I learned.
Our phones are like our coffee. Coffee give us energy and the ability to function and we’re made to believe we can’t go without it. But if one day you forgot to go on your morning coffee run to Starbucks, what would really happen? Sure, you’d feel groggy and tired that first day, but a couple days later and suddenly, the need for coffee goes away. The one who suffers is Starbucks.
It’s the same with a phone. To keep us holding on to them 24/7, the technology world gives us more games, more apps, more reasons to swipe and click and look. We’re not addicted to our phones; they’re addicted to us. The technology world holds so much power over what teenagers see and do. But when we put our phones down, the power comes back to us.
Since the end of my experiment, I don’t touch my Buzzfeed app or Facebook app as much as I used to. I don’t feel the need to look at the articles on my feed now or take a mindless quiz. I still Snapchat and text my friends like crazy; some things just don’t change. But I read and study more on the train; I find myself doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles instead of playing games on my phone. I’ve taken the power back from my phone and I have more control over it than it does over me, exactly the way it should be.