I Stopped Using Screens For 3 Days, and Here’s What Happened
Illustration by Marco Goran Romano
A trip to tech rehab offers some lessons on how to cut your phone use before it becomes a problem
If you think texting and driving is dangerous, then you’ve clearly forgotten what it’s like to drive with a road map open in front of your windshield. I’m just an hour into my planned three days of total digital detoxing — no screens whatsoever — and I’m unable to find this damn restaurant in Seattle. I am stressed out, making illegal U-turns, and feeling increasingly less clear on why I committed to turning off the iPhone tucked inside the center console, a device that could deliver everything I need in a calm, commanding voice. This cannot be better for me.
Science, however, says it is. A university department’s worth of studies all suggest that our Internet-enabled devices are making us miserable. Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State, says there aren’t a lot of studies on adults, but “for teens, the negative effects of screens start showing up after two hours a day of use during leisure time.”
Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, and an excerpt of that book in The Atlantic quickly went viral (no irony there). It’s important to keep in mind, Twenge says, that “it’s not just that screens have negative effects. It’s that they leave less time for activities that make us happier, like exercise or seeing friends in person.”
Younger, developing brains are especially vulnerable: Teens who use electronic devices for three hours a day or longer are 35 percent more suicide-prone than those who come in under three. That’s according to Twenge’s book, which uses data from Monitoring the Future, a survey that’s been tracking young people since 1975. The survey also found, says Twenge, that eighth graders who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are 47 percent less likely to be happy than those spending fewer than six. And in August, the Wall Street Journal ran an article claiming that Generation Z kids are so unaccustomed to any input not from a phone that doorbells scare the crap out of them.
I never had an issue with doorbells, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t an addict, but, like asking a doctor how many drinks a day makes you an alcoholic, I wanted to know how much time on my phone was too much, and how to keep my phone use from becoming a problem.
I was fairly certain I logged in well under two hours a day, but just to make sure, I downloaded Moment, a free app that tracks your active phone usage, not including when you’re on a call, using FaceTime, or listening to music. (I’m just tech-addicted enough to believe that I can solve my problem of looking at apps with another app.)
When you first use it, Moment warns that most people underestimate their screen time by 100 percent. I try to lay off the phone for my first day because Fitbit, Twitter, and Facebook have trained me to believe that everything is a competitive game, and I want to win Moment. But goddamn if Moment isn’t right. I didn’t use my phone for the hour or so that I had suspected; I used it for two hours and 32 seconds, picking it up 46 times and clocking 16 minutes first thing after waking. And that’s just my phone. I waste a lot of time on my laptop on Twitter, news, email, and porn.
Moment, which has been downloaded 4 million times and has 850,000 current active users, has estimated people’s average daily usage at four hours and five minutes, with more than 50 pickups. And these are people who are aware enough of their tech usage to download Moment. People spend the most time on Facebook, followed by Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp, all of which, along with Reddit, rank as the apps people say leave them most gloomy.
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I’ve tried before to curb my tech habit and failed. Several years ago, I tried a 24-hour detox as part of the National Day of Unplugging. This was created by Reboot, a Jewish organization updating the Sabbath. My wife and I figured we’d be having sex by candlelight that night, but after getting lost on our way to a party and being unable to text people who left before we arrived, we had no candles, no sex, and, three hours in, no detoxing.
To prevent failing again, I’m checking myself in for two days at the reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability, a rehab facility for online addicts located near Redmond, Washington (the home of Microsoft). Admittedly, I’m taking a blister to a burn ward: The program I’m auditing runs 45 to 90 days. Most of the guys who enroll are young; they’re here because they play video games for six to 18 hours a day, with periods of binge gaming. Nearly all have rich parents; they have to, since staying here costs $550 a day. Plus, once they complete the program, they have the chance to go to a halfway house for at least six months. Most won’t return to their computer-based jobs and will work at Target or Gold’s Gym until they can figure out a new career.
At 9 a.m. I drive up a remote, wooded road to a two-story house the program uses for adult men; they have another for teenage boys. Hilarie Cash, Ph.D., reSTART’s cofounder and chief clinical officer, takes my coffee away before I enter; no caffeine is allowed here, and neither is alcohol or refined sugar. I walk into the living room and grab a chair to join six men, ages 19 to 26, sitting in a circle for a meeting. They look like Internet addicts: four are underweight, two are overweight, all have weird facial hair, and only one looks remotely awake.
Almost all Restart members are hooked on video games, which can be especially addictive because games are competitive, social, skill-building activities with clear rewards. They also have no real end and are designed with a level of psychological sophistication equaled only by slot machines. But as the guys start talking, they seem less like total nerd losers. They’re smart, sensitive, depressive dudes. They were once well-rounded. The ones who didn’t drop out of high school dropped out of such places as Lehigh, BYU, and Emory. They played sports. One who finished college worked on Capitol Hill for a senator and then in venture capital overseas. Several play instruments; I will hear fantastic solo piano versions of “Take Five” in the music room later that day. Their pop culture references are broad. Many had girlfriends. I feel like I’m less at a rehab community and more at one of those dorky frats that actually focus on community service.
A Mormon from Provo, Utah, says porn addictions are huge in his religious community because of the hidden shame — church leaders will shun anyone who admits to it. He checked himself in after his last porn bender. “Capitalism at this stage is all about controlling your attention. I want to better know how to defend my mind against the people who want to exploit it for money,” he says.
A 5’11” redhead weighing 120 pounds or so logged 2,000 hours in a two-month period on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, briefly becoming number two in North America — good enough to be a professional gamer. Another had played 16,800 hours — nearly 10 percent of his life, including sleeping — of World of Warcraft (just one of his games) before attempting suicide. Another guy spent his days gaming in a PC cafe and his nights in a men’s homeless shelter after his parents finally threw him out. “I’ve noticed my ability to sit through long movies has diminished,” he said. “We’re not talking Tolstoy. We’re talking Star Wars: Episode IV. We have a generation unable to sit through popcorn movies.” He wished his parents had pulled all his devices when he was 16, even though he would have raged against them. Since gaming, his interpersonal skills have atrophied. “When I got here it was really hard for me to make eye contact with people,” he says.
Two of the six guys are on the autism spectrum, which is about average for this place, Cash tells me. Communication on the Internet is autism-friendly, stripped of confusing body language and vocal tones. Cash gives me an EQ test, and I find that while I’m not on the spectrum, my emotional intelligence is depressingly average.
Even with these new, interesting guys and an actual theremin to play with, the lack of digital stimulation makes the day crawl. My head feels fuzzy and heavy. I don’t have FOMO (fear of missing out) as much as FOBIT (fear of being in trouble). It’s my son’s first day of third grade, and something might have happened. My mom is at the doctor’s to find out if she needs an operation. A college friend from Seattle might be able to have breakfast with me tomorrow. My lawyer might need a form to transfer my book rights to my new company. My column in Time magazine is running in four days, and there must be copy editor questions. And this is only a fraction of what I may be neglecting.
I try to stay in the present and talk with the guys. Eventually we go to a meeting with a sex addiction counselor, and I share my experiences with using porn to escape writer’s block. Afterward, we do a really hard CrossFit workout in the garage and then go to another meeting where we hear another group member’s sad tale of cutting and self-loathing. Later we clean the house and cook dinner. The only assumption I’ve had confirmed all day is that you do not want to eat meals prepared by gamers.
At dusk, a counselor who was an addict featured in the documentary Screenagers leads us to meditate in a small cabin in the vast backyard that quickly becomes filled with man-meditation funk. There are tricks for dealing with Internet-use triggers, most of which you’ve heard: Go outside! Exercise! Keep your phone at least arm’s length away from your bed! But the main thing we’re learning is boredom.
Maybe these guys have addict’s brain, but they were gaming for the same reason we pick up the phone every 20 minutes, and there’s only one way to stop it. The problem: We are uncomfortable with our feelings and want to self-soothe via distraction. The solution: Sit through the anxiety, anger, boredom, shame, self-doubt, and loneliness.
The counselors encourage the “six R’s” used in loving-kindness meditation. First you recognize the emotion and know that it doesn’t define you — as in “I’m feeling angry” instead of “I’m an angry person.” Second, you release the thought, maybe by picturing it written on a dissipating cloud. Then you relax (by focusing on your breath), “re-smile,” return (by recalling a happy memory), and repeat. In short: We practice calming the fuck down.
Online addiction, like any addiction, often masks deeper personal and family problems. One of the ways reSTART addresses these is through something called “impact letters.” These are from loved ones who detail how the addict’s behavior has negatively affected their lives. Each person has to read his letter cold for the very first time and out loud to the group. The one we’re gathered for tonight was sent to a high-functioning autistic guy from his father.
The letter details how he couldn’t get his son to get off the sofa for basic hygiene, and that his body odor was so bad his mother couldn’t be in the same room with him. He stops reading halfway through, saying he can’t handle reading the next section out loud. He finishes in fits, ending in a trance, rocking and mumbling that he wasted his life. The group is silent. Then he reads the part of the letter he skipped: The most disgusting part, his dad had written, was the brown underwear he’d worn for days.
Eventually, one of the guys asks if his hygiene has improved since he got to reSTART. He looks down and says he hasn’t showered in his five weeks here. A 6’4″ former high school football player in the program offers to wake him up at 7 a.m. every day and stand guard outside the shower to make sure he takes one. The autistic guy says dirty showers scare him. And being seen naked by his roommate panics him. Then he makes a confession: He’s been lying to himself and everyone present about his addiction. It’s not really about Twitter and YouTube. The problem, he says, is that he spends six hours a day watching furry porn, which involves people in animal costumes. He’s also a “brony” — a guy who’s into the cartoon My Little Pony. We end our conversation, proud of the guy for sharing. We assure him that he is far too young to have wasted his life.
As we get up to leave, he asks if it’s too late at night to shower. Joseph Campbell never said anything about how a hero’s journey cannot culminate with a shower by a My Little Pony-obsessed porn addict. He returns holding a thin gray towel aloft to make sure it’s not anyone else’s. Then we hear the water run. Some runs down the guys’ faces.
A wake-up call at the hotel the next day gets me up at 7, and I spend another day with the guys in meetings, working out, reading, cooking, and generally being bored. My mind has started to adjust. I am reaching for my phantom phone less. My FOBIT has lessened.
When my flight lands back in Los Angeles, I turn on my phone to get a Lyft ride home. I’ve detoxed for two days and seven hours. I have four voicemails, 16 texts, and 136 emails (none of them junk, thanks to Unroll.Me). I knock them off in less than an hour on the drive. It’s not a painful hour, since responding is a task and not an interruption from one. And even though every one of those things I FOBITed occurred, being three days late in responding hasn’t done any harm. No one really noticed. I erase Twitter and Facebook from my phone. (I’ll save those for the laptop.) I put everyone but my wife, parents, and sister on “do not disturb” for texts.
The next morning, as I’m getting him ready for school, my 8-year-old son asks if I learned how to use my phone less. I tell him I did. He tells me about a time we were playing the board game Settlers of Catan, and I was running back and forth between turns to answer emails. I tell him I know how not to do that anymore. I will embrace the boredom of parenting, which only makes sense, since being with my son is what I had visualized as my happy memory in the meditation. I had gotten so weak at feeling emotions that I’d gotten bad at feeling happy too.
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