This is the strange reality of being human: We’re obsessed with pursuing happiness, but we’re often terrible at distinguishing between things
that make us joyful and things that make us miserable. In my case, things I do constantly that make me feel miserable include eating five pieces of buttered toast for dinner, fiddling prematurely with zits, flaking on plans, and spending hours a day on my iPhone. Especially the iPhone. Yesterday I was on it for four hours and 37 minutes, and I picked it up 64 times. I know this because I downloaded an app that told me so.
Never mind the glutenphilia and zit-fiddling for now. When it comes to compulsive habits, the iPhone is what I’m most concerned about. And I’m not alone in worrying. The world is full of articles about “digital detoxes” and “11 Signs You Might Be on Your Phone Too Much.” Aziz Ansari announced in an interview last year that he’d deleted the Internet from his phone. A startup named Yondr makes pouches that lock people out of their phones to prevent the devices from becoming “a distraction and a crutch,” assuming — rightly — that we can’t be trusted to simply turn them off ourselves. Catherine Price, a science journalist, has written How to Break Up With Your Phone, a book, out this month, that gives us a new metaphor with which to think of our devices. Consider, Price suggests, the idea that your phone is the other party in a bad relationship: It demands all of your attention and manipulates you; it has inappropriate boundaries, and it monopolizes your time; sometimes it makes you feel good, but mostly it makes you feel bad. This comparison rings true.
As with any bad relationship, it can take a while before you even realize you’re stuck in one. It turns out there are neurological reasons we can’t stop scrolling and refreshing. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist and product philosopher at Google, draws a connection between smartphones and slot machines: They both occasionally dole out a reward (like a Twitter mention or a text from your romantic interest) in order to cultivate compulsive checking. But there’s one key difference: With slot machines, you eventually run out of coins and have to go home. With phones, there’s no stopping cue. If there were, I wouldn’t be spending 28 percent of my waking hours on it. Something else my tracking app told me.
David Greenfield, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, developed a smartphone compulsion test (look it up online and take it) to help anxious people assess their phone usage. I took the test and was advised to proceed directly to a professional who specializes in behavioral addictions. Most of my friends qualified, too. On a whim, I Googled “Internet addiction rehab” and found a single legitimate-looking result located within the United States. It was 30 minutes outside Seattle. A few weeks later, I was on a plane.
This is how I ended up at reStart, a facility founded in 2009 that accepts clients for 6 to 10-week inpatient treatment sessions, followed by a transition program, in which they definitively disconnect. The point of my visit was to learn, not to enroll — I was stopping in as a visitor but hoped to walk away with permanently changed habits. I arrived at rehab at 9 a.m. The center is a spacious home surrounded by five acres of vine maples and evergreens. Wild mushrooms grow in fairy-tale clumps along the road. It struck me as a place of such natural splendor that no one would want to be locked into a screen anyway, but within a few minutes of parking I had to suppress the urge to check my DMs. So there you go.
A tall young man in socked feet greeted me at the door when I knocked. “Hello. Who are you?” Behind him was an open kitchen where a cluster of young people prepared breakfast. It looked and smelled like Sunday morning at a fancy college dormitory. After shedding my shoes, handing over my phone, and signing a confidentiality agreement, I was swept into the day’s agenda. First up: morning meeting. The morning meeting took place in a den lined with bookshelves. (James Joyce and Cervantes were represented alongside Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Codependent No More.) A sign on the wall read, “thou shalt not whine.” The rehab accepts only six clients at a time.
The meeting started with everyone going around the room and saying, “Today I’m feeling _____, and I’m thankful for ______.” The moods and acknowledgments varied widely. One person was grateful for waffles. One person was feeling, “Ugh…I don’t know.” A word of the day (“vigor”) was selected and written on a chalkboard over yesterday’s word (“tenacity”). Then it was time to go around in a circle and name a goal, a piece of personal progress, and a compliment for someone else in the group. After the sharing, a counselor related the day’s news: Another mass shooting had occurred, Trump was in Asia, and the Astros had crushed the Dodgers. This daily announcement is one of a few remaining tethers to the outside world; otherwise clients remain immune to news alerts. An old-fashioned phone booth enables them to call their parents on the weekends. If they have a medical appointment or another pressing reason to leave the house, they have to call and ask their parents or ask the staff to arrange for a car service. Nobody gets near a screen. Life is less convenient and more deliberate.
By noon I could tell that Internet rehab was a lot like any other kind of rehab: a mixture of therapy, exercise, and unstructured activities. The clients went shopping for groceries, worked out, wrote (on a typewriter, not a computer), drew, napped, ate snacks, chatted about music, made to-do lists, performed household chores, and checked in with their counselors.
In the office area of the house, I sat down with Hilarie Cash, who is one of the center’s cofounders and the chief clinical officer. She wore a cranberry-hued jacket and a pair of earrings shaped like chili peppers, which the clients all complimented her on. Her tone was kind but no-nonsense — the ideal bedside manner — as she explained the complications of treating Internet addiction. “The advantage of something like alcohol addiction is that you can stay away from bars; you can stay away from other drinkers; you can refrain from touching a drop of alcohol again,” she said. “This is not that.” It’s closer to an eating disorder, Cash explained, in that the client will forever be forced to interact with the delivery system of their addiction. “Just as someone with an eating disorder has to learn how to avoid unhealthy foods that trigger their cycle, so, too, these clients have to learn to use the Internet in healthy ways and avoid things that will trigger their cycles.”
What about someone like me? I asked. Someone whose habits are unhealthy but hardly debilitating? “Take a break once a week,” Cash
advised. “Start with one hour a day. Work up to one day a month. Try one week a year. Feel how healthy and liberating it feels.” And don’t forget, she added, that the more time you spend on a screen, the more you’re isolating yourself from in-the-flesh human interactions. “We’re social animals — we need face-to-face interaction. And we’re getting less and less of it.”
As I wandered around the house talking to clients and observing the daily routine, it occurred to me that our social interactions had an unusual tint. The clients all made direct eye contact with me and listened carefully. They joked and made sharp observations. In other words, they were good conversationalists — a quality that is more uncommon than I’d realized. Surely the lack of phones had something to do with it. One of them told me that his mind was clearer without screen time and that he could think more easily. Another told me that he was newly able to maintain emotional equilibrium. “Before, if I was in a bad mood, I could get stuck in it for weeks. Now I can solve it. I can deal with it. I can talk about it. I can get through it.”
I left the center encouraged. Nobody inside seemed to miss their devices. Nobody seemed depressed without them. Even spending a few hours without mine had clarified my senses. This air is the perfect temperature for walking, I thought happily as I returned to the car. My arm automatically darted into my bag to check the weather and find out exactly what temperature constituted perfect walking weather. But no! I stopped. I’m not a rat in a maze designed by Apple. I’m a human with freedom of choice.
On the plane ride home, I opted not to pay for Wi-Fi. Instead, I deleted Instagram from my phone, shut it down, and buried it at the bottom of my backpack. A spike of anxiety was followed swiftly by full-body relaxation. I was fully offline: unreachable and unbotherable. In minutes, I was asleep.
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