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phone addiction

Maya Oren, 27, of Washington, D.C., is deeply concerned about her relationship with her smartphone and what it's doing to her life and her brain. 

Maya Oren wants to dial back her dependence on her smartphone. She plans to do it slowly by getting a new phone — a simple one that doesn’t download apps or take photos or send her notifications. Her new device will place calls and receive them.

But the 27-year-old Washington, D.C., entrepreneur isn’t planning to entirely ditch her iPhone to which she has an increasingly dysfunctional relationship.

“I wake up in the morning and my heart is racing out of my chest,” she says. “I’m checking Instagram. How many new followers did I get? How many people did I lose? What am I going to post today?”

Oren’s new phone won’t have its own number — it will simply accept calls forwarded from her iPhone so she can attempt, on occasion, to step away from the shiny, buzzing rectangle that has come to feel like an ever-present taskmaster.

That’s right — she’s thinking of buying a new phone so she can try to spend less time with her old one. The past few months have brought an escalating awareness of the perils that lurk in our pockets. Or, most of the time, in the viselike grip of our hands. Yogis and pastors across the country have called for digital detoxes. There’s been a fresh wave of articles about how to curb our smartphone addictions. And a small parade of former tech executives have come forward to raise alarms that their innovations are, perhaps, a destructive force acting upon both our psyches and our democracy.

Larry Rosen, a psychologist who studies society’s relationship with technology, refers to where we are as a “really interesting pit.” He thinks we’re going to sink even deeper into the abyss of smartphone obsession, though not so deep we can never escape.

One by one, agitated people are trying to break the trance.

Will Yoste, a 24-year-old project manager in Oxford, Mississippi, found himself feeling “phantom vibrations,” so he deleted his Facebook app, which is helping a little.

Kay Rhind, a 52-year-old sales director in Silicon Valley, cuts off her home’s WiFi at 11 p.m. every night and downloaded an app that allows her to shut off her three teenagers’ phones remotely.

Andrew Martin, a research librarian in D.C., put his little girls on a seven-day no-screen challenge. And those girls wisely insisted that Martin and his wife, Julie, put their own devices away.

“It’s really made us realize how insidious the addiction to these screens in our pockets are,” Martin says. “If you have more than 30 seconds without stimulation you have this twitch to reach for your cellphone.”

Tristan Harris, a Google alum who runs an organization called Time Well Spent, has likened cellphones to portable slot machines. We carry them around and swipe the screen looking for a win — a few new “likes,” a crucial email, an interesting news story. Sometimes we get a dopamine-releasing hit, sometimes we don’t, but that’s what keeps us coming back. To make money, social media companies need to grab and hold our attention as frequently as possible. And the more we swipe, the more we want to swipe.

Article after article about smartphone addiction offer similar advice on how to cut back: Don’t use your phone an hour before bed, don’t charge it in your bedroom, don’t check it first thing in the morning and delete social media apps.

So are smartphones the cigarettes of our era? Are they an addiction we intuitively know is unhealthy — even without the confirmation of hard evidence — but continue because, well, everyone’s doing it?

Maya Oren thinks so. Oren generates digital marketing content for a living, and she’s grateful for the online connections her smartphone has wrought, even as she grapples with its hold on her attention.

So, she’s taking baby steps. She bought an old-school alarm clock and has tried, with mixed success, to wake up to that instead of her cellphone.


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