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Are you searching for something? Where exactly do you look?

TikTok. Instagram. Your email. Your news feed. There’s something you want to find, but you can’t name it. Something you want to feel, but it’s not easy to identify. Maybe you want relief from the day or an escape from reality. Maybe connection. During the pandemic, many of us needed that. 

Study:Smartphone use physically affects your brain

Most of us don’t reach for our phones with intention. We reach thoughtlessly, reflexively, craving a satisfaction we believe the phone will provide. The phone is an easy retreat, and it has in many ways helped us access information and gratification, helped us forge and maintain connection. But it has also narrowed the spaces where we seek pleasure and possibility. This shift predates the pandemic, though a year of lockdowns, quarantines, and distancing further limited our engagement with the wider world.

“The sense of possibility that we want to feel in our lives has shifted. Our sense of aspiration, our sense that something could happen. Whatever it is, it now exists on our phone,” said Sherry Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of “The Empathy Diaries.” “There used to be all these places and spaces that held our imagination. … Now more and more we are turning to our phones for those feelings.”

When people pick up their phones, they look for different things. Some people want to feel valued. Some want to feel they have influence. Some search for camaraderie.

“The phone has become a place of finding ourselves,” Turkle said. “We think that’s where the people are. That’s where the people who will appreciate us are. That’s where the people who will admire us are. That’s where the good news is.”

Making phone use ‘a conscious choice’

In many cases, the phone delivers, which is why we go back, even if often the good feeling it provides is relatively fleeting – the laugh at the late-night joke or the boost we get when we read a compliment on a photo. Other interactions with our phones can be more meaningful – it’s where we learn about the job offer or get notes of care after we lose someone or something we love. 

The problem is when it starts to become difficult to be with ourselves and with others without our phones. When we reach for it without purpose, or when the original purpose, like checking an email, seamlessly morphs into something else – moralizing on Twitter, hate-reading an article, or marveling and then recoiling at something on TikTok.

Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said people are engaging in more transient, shallow and ephemeral electronic interactions versus deep, substantial, interpersonal ones.

“We are now looking to static electronic stimuli to generate our feelings more than we’re looking toward human interactions,” he said.

Catherine Price, author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone” and founder of Screen/Life Balance, said we should be asking ourselves three questions before picking up a device:

  • What for?
  • Why now?
  • What else? 

“It’s not that the phone is an evil technology,” she said. “No one’s going to want to get rid of their phone, and certainly not now. Thank goodness we have technology during the pandemic. I don’t know how we would’ve coped. But this helps you make sure that when you do pick up your phone, it’s the result of a conscious choice.”

“What for” is asking your purpose. Were you going to buy something? Look at an email? Or was this a mindless check? “Why now?” asks about timing. Is it your friend’s birthday next week and you need to purchase a gift for it to arrive on the right date? Or are you reaching for the phone now because you’re feeling anxious or lonely?  The final question, “what else?” helps you identify what you might do instead of using your phone that would accomplish the same purpose, especially if it’s a feeling you seek.

“If you’re feeling lonely, maybe instead of going on Instagram where you’re just going to look at other people’s feeds and feel bad about yourself, you can actually call a friend,” Price said. “It’s important to recognize maybe your answer is, ‘I really did want to go on my phone for that.’ That’s totally fine. Then you’ve gone through the process. Now, you know it’s the result of a conscious choice. Great. Go ahead and use your phone.”

‘Oh my God, what did I just do with my free time?’

Some people reach for their phones because they don’t know what else to do. Price said cultivating other interests, hobbies or passions offers alternatives to endless scrolling. And they can be small. For Price, it’s been learning about tree bark. She’s also trying to learn the lick to “Jolene” on the guitar. 

“Your brain is conditioned to associate the phone with reward. But very rarely does that reward actually satisfy you,” she said. “It’s normally just a hollow feeling and leaves you a little bit empty when you finish. And then you think, ‘Oh my God, what did I just do with my free time?’ that you worked all day to give yourself.”

During the pandemic, people looked to their phones to help them feel things the world denied. But even before the pandemic, digital experts argue too many of us took the actual world for granted. 

“I don’t have anything against the phone,” Turkle said, “but it’s an important recognition that when you reach for your phone, when you can’t put it down, it’s because there’s something in you that’s yearning. And we sort of have given up on other places to look for it.” 

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