Overcoming Social Media Addiction Part #4: The Smartphone

While part 1 I outlined the basic problem with social media, part 2 was a reflection on my own problematic media usage and part 3 detailed the changes I want to make. I left out the smartphone for a reason because I think this device deserves it’s own post.

Overcoming social media addiction a self portrait

The smartphone: My short history

The dumb phone

In 1999 I started my first job or really an apprenticeship. But it involved me receiving my first salary. With that I bought my first mobile phone. It could make phone calls, send short messages and tell me the time. I don’t think it even had a calendar or an alarm clock. Subsequent phones did offer these features, maybe a small game or even a very basic camera.

The smarter phone

In 2009 I bought my first smartphone. I was actually an early adopter because I could see a lot of use for such a device. So what did I use this phone for? Making calls and sending messages was still it’s primary function.

Having a calendar, alarm clock, todo list, address book and some notes in one small device that would share the information with my computer was quite useful. I liked to check my email on the go so I would not have boot up my computer every time I wanted to read a mail or write a quick reply. I used a Palm handheld for this before but having all these functions in one device was simply more convenient.

The ability to easily access the internet was the biggest plus compared to older organizers. I could check things I wanted to know, look at online maps, get directions for public transport, find a particular store or place on the go, compare prices and so on. I rarely played games or watched videos because mobile data was quite expensive and the phones were too small and slow anyway. I did however put a lot of my music on this device and so could get rid of my dedicated MP3-Player.

The adult pacifier

Over time my usage of the smartphone changed. Along came messaging apps, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Feeds, YouTube and they all brought with them their notifications. Suddenly my phone demanded more and more attention while at the same time I looked at my phone more often because it had new information all the time. I got hooked and checked all the media sources constantly.

Very soon I used the phone (weird how we call it a phone even though it is the least used feature) to keep me busy during times of boredom like waiting for a train, or actually taking a train or during office breaks, while waiting for my food in a restaurant and so on. Whenever it beeped I would become nervous until I checked why it was beeping. I came to resent myself and others for checking our respective phones when we were having an actual face to face conversation. The phone became essentially a kind of nagging pacifier for adults.

The smartphone: A reevaluation

From pacifier to utility

I am not condemning smartphones. They are incredibly useful devices that can enrich our lives and make them easier. But they are also dangerous devices that can essentially take over our lives. Devices that demand constant attention, devices that are used to medicate ourselves, devices that make us loose ourselves and distract us from what it is important in life. Devices that keep us in a state of constant arousal. Therefore I suggest to reevaluate the role our smartphones play in life. We should clearly see them as something utilitarian. They should make life easier or better instead of simply using up our limited time on earth.

The paradox of time saving devices

Smartphones can be time saving devices. But there is a paradox with such devices. Before the advent of washing machines people used a lot of time washing their clothes. It was very labor intensive. With the advent of washing machines and other household appliances we thought to liberate people from much of the housework due to these labor and time saving devices. What actually happened was that people used the saved labor and time to clean, wash and cook even more. Additionally they spent time learning and managing their new appliances.

Sure machines make things easier but we can just as easily fill up our day with using more and more machines. I like coffee. I could just boil up water and pour it over the ground beans in my cup. Two minutes and I am done. But instead I carefully grind the beans, I preheat my espresso machine, I weigh out the beans, I rinse and heat my cup, I foam up milk, I put coffee into a filter, press it carefully down….you get it right? So I spend at least twice the time making a cappuccino. But it is worth it. It is time well spend. I like the process of making espresso and I enjoy the fruits of my labor. Can you say the same for your smartphone?

Make your phone a time saving device that works for you and not the other way around

This is the mindset I shall adopt towards my smartphone. The device should be useful, helpful, save me time or make things more convenient instead of demanding my attention. Sometimes I wonder who is dominating the relationship between me and my phone. Sometimes it seems to be the phone! So here is my general thought in dealing with my phone (or any other device for that matter): Does the time spent make my life easier, better or does it save time somewhere else? Is it like a dish washer allowing me to do other things or just read a book while it whirs away and cleans dishes? Is it like an espresso machine that takes a lot of time but makes for an enjoyable experience. Or is it something that I just spend time on without getting anything worthwhile done? Something that interrupts me all day long?

How I setup my phone

Remove all apps and only install those that are helpful

I went back to why I bought a smartphone in the first place. I wanted a device to communicate with people, to organize my schedule, take a few notes, look up information, check a map or public transport route, listen to music or read a book on the go. If you no longer use social media you do not need their apps anyway. But if you do try to access social media not through your phone as to make it a little more difficult to open up Twitter and Instagram. Sometimes this can help limit your usage. I limited my device to these apps (and it is still a long list):

  • Phone Dialer, Address Book, Notes, Todo, Calendar, Clock, Calculator
  • Messenger Apps, Email, Cloud app to access my documents
  • Maps, Public Transport App, Ticket App, Navigation
  • Banking Apps because you “need” them now by law to identify yourself, Password Manager
  • Music Player, Spotify, Kindle
  • Emergency App (used by the government for official warnings like storms, fires, bomb disposals and so on)
  • Ebay, Amazon, Grocery Store App, Package Tracker to make purchases without opening my computer or quickly adding missing ingredients for the weekly delivery
  • Camera, Gallery and Cloud App to access my photography for when I want to show images or to capture quick moments with my family
  • a web browser
  • an ad and tracking blocker
  • two files, one to select film simulations and lenses and the other to keep track of my expenses

Disable as many notifications as possible

Almost every app comes with notifications and every time the phone beeps you get a little jolt of dopamine just to be disappointed by just another spam mail or weather report. So I only allow audible notifications for the phone, messenger apps, email, package tracker and calendar events. When I commute I also activate a notification for any track works and service changes that affect my route. I only have notifications for things that I would like to respond to in a timely manner. I set up a different sound for messenger apps because keeping in touch with friends and family is the most important thing for me.

I don’t need to know about the latest Kindle deals, some news from my public transport company, the incessant questions from Google Maps to rate a place or constant news updates. The idea is if you want to know something you grab the phone and look it up. Not the phone pushing information down your throat with you constantly dismissing notifications. The question for every app should be: “Do I need to know this now or later?”

Use the “Do Not Disturb” feature

I set my phone to “dnd” from 10pm to 8am. There is an option to let callers through who call twice within 15 minutes. So if there is an emergency people can still wake me up in the middle of the night but a WhatsApp message can surely wait until I had breakfast and coffee. When I am with other people I usually set my phone to “dnd” as well. I find nothing more annoying and disrespectful than people pulling out their phone for messaging when we are having a conversation.

If possible try to get a phone with an LED

Unfortunately most phones today come without an extra LED as to give more space to the display. I liked having an LED. I would put my phone someplace where I could see it from time to time (the wardrobe at home or the edge of my desk at work) and set it to silent. At some point my eye would naturally catch the tiny light and I would check my phone whenever I had the time. If I wanted to stay undisturbed I simply turned the phone around.

Nowadays I can only ever use an immediately audible notification or I have to actually grab and check the phone in regular intervals. I hate that. It is like phone manufacturers took out LEDs for the express purpose of making us turn on the device more often. Truth is they are probably just saving costs by omitting an LED. If you have an OLED screen you might use the “always on display” feature instead. For other display types this would result in a constant slight glow and quite a lot of battery usage.


The hard part is picking up enough courage to let go of your media feeds and to delete apps or even accounts. Never forget you are your phone’s master and not the other way around. See it like a swiss army knife. You carry it around for whenever you need to use it but it otherwise does not bother you. Your phone is just a tool.

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