In December, Vitaminwater announced that it would pay one contestant $100,000 if they're able to give up smartphones and tablets for a year. I was immediately intrigued.
"I could do that," I thought. How hard could it be to stop scrolling? I already wanted to cut down on the amount of time I spent mindlessly staring at my phone — I might as well go cold turkey.
So I decided to try a version of the challenge. For one week in January, I replaced my smartphone with a basic flip phone. In an attempt to live by Vitaminwater's ruIes, I only used it for simple functions, such as calls and texts. I didn't enable its email function or use it to surf the internet. And though I was allowed to use both my desktop computer and my laptop, I had to say goodbye to my Kindle Fire.
In some ways, being partially off the grid was heaven. But by the end of the challenge, I couldn't wait to have my iPhone back.
Here's what it was like to give up my smartphone for a week.
On the first day, I wake up to an old, familiar noise blaring loudly in my ear. Instead of using the Clock function on my iPhone, I had to pull out my alarm clock from high school: It's loud and it isn't fancy, but it works.
Next, I turn to a handheld stopwatch to time my daily stretches. I typically listen to music while doing my physical therapy exercises but, because I can't simply pull up Spotify on my phone, I have to get creative.
I remember that I still have my old iPod Video lying around and get it out. It hasn't been updated in a few years, so I listen to a throwback Alanis Morissette album as I get ready for the day.
I take the subway to work and read a physical book instead of using the Kindle app on my phone. Without being able to check my email, look at Slack or scroll through Instagram, I'm able to become completely engrossed. I almost forget that I'm shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of strangers.
At work, I have an interview scheduled for mid-morning, and I realize I can't use any recording apps on my phone. Instead, I have to track down a working recorder, which takes several tries.
It takes several more tries to find someone who can teach me how to properly attach the recorder to my desktop phone.
As the day goes on, I start to notice a theme: Everything is mildly more annoying, but nothing is truly difficult. After one day without my iPhone, I'm feeling confident about how my week will go.
Each consecutive day with my flip phone gets easier, but I run into new struggles constantly. A few days in, I accidentally turn off my alarm clock instead of snoozing it. Without my three backup alarms, I oversleep and end up late to work.
And without access to Google Maps, I have to plan ahead every time I visit a new place. I look up each location on my desktop and sketch a miniature map of the area in my notebook. Spontaneous plans are out of the question unless I'm already familiar with how to get there.
Though many of New York's streets are laid out in a helpful grid, not all are, and I manage to get turned around a few times, like while trying to meet up with a friend in Greenpoint. But between my homemade maps and familiarity with the city, I surprise myself by never getting too lost.
As the week draws on, I get progressively more annoyed with how hard it is to send and receive text messages. You don't realize how much you rely on autocorrect, or how convenient it is to type with a full keyboard, until you're stamping out words letter by letter.
Even simple messages take forever to compile because I have to hit the 7 key four times just to type an S.
My flip phone can't receive group texts, either. The few times friends try to include me, I only see the message from the first person to reply, with no context. What are they responding to? Who else is included? I have no idea.
It's frustrating to be oblivious to the conversation and at the same time be fully aware that it's happening without me.
My friends don't stop using group texts, though. They keep at it, just without including my number. I can't blame them — it's a convenient way to share something with several friends at once — but I hate that I'm not able to contribute my thoughts and ideas too.
At brunch on Saturday, a friend offers to put the entire amount on her credit card. I can't send her money over Venmo to pay her back for my share, so I have to scrounge around in my purse for cash. I come up $2 short of the $34 I owe.
My friend insists it's fine, but I feel guilty and end up sending her the remainder on Venmo when I get my iPhone back.
Later that night, I run into yet another group text challenge. I've offered to host a game night at my apartment but can't communicate with my friends about when to come over or what to bring. Instead, they discuss the plans among themselves and one person relays the details to me.
It's an efficient way of handling the situation but I feel ridiculous: The party is happening at my apartment, yet I can't take part in the planning.
All week, I feel out of the loop. It's difficult to connect with my friends and family, which leaves me lonely.
Because it takes significantly longer to send even a simple text, I find myself avoiding using my phone. I'm not able to freely discuss popular articles with my friend who lives in California, or stay up-to-date on my college friends' lives. I refrain from sharing funny or interesting links.
Unless I have time to actually hold a conversation, I keep my communications strictly utilitarian. I make plans. I check in with my roommates. I call my parents. That's pretty much it.
Although I know it's partly a mental block that's keeping me isolated, I don't want to stick with the flip phone long enough to figure out a way to make it work. I just want my iPhone and my group texts back.
In spite of my complaints, the flip phone won me over. Using it was freeing. I didn't feel chained to my notifications and wasn't constantly scrolling through Instagram. And I listened to 90s music again!
I didn't miss social media at all. I was able to check Facebook and Twitter on my desktop, which was enough to keep me up to date. Instead of scrolling past the same content again and again, I filled spare moments with reading, interacting with my surroundings or simply doing nothing. I felt present and distraction-free.
One night, I treated myself to dinner at a ramen restaurant known for its individual booths, where I spent the entire meal absorbed in my book. I didn't catch up on emails or texts. I didn't check Instagram and compare my plans to everyone else's. I wasn't bombarded with news notifications as I tried to page through an e-book.
The experience was enlightening: I didn't feel an ounce of stress or FOMO or anxiety. I was more relaxed than I had been in weeks.
Giving up my smartphone challenged me to be more focused and organized as well. When I made plans, I stuck to them and expected others to do the same. I completed my assignments during business hours and didn't stress about work unless I was actually at work. It was kind of great, frankly. I loved being able to live in the moment and disconnect from my workday.
As much as I enjoyed taking a break from social media, I never want to give up my smartphone again. The sense of isolation just didn't outweigh any of the positives. While I appreciated that it forced me to be present, I missed the ease of staying connected with my friends and family.
If everyone reverted back to flip phones, I don't think I would mind. But the fact that I was no longer on a level playing field made things difficult because I was dealing with these challenges alone. I was the only one left out of group messages, the only coworker who wasn't able to keep up with Slack, the only friend who couldn't Venmo her portion of the bill.
Using flip phone for a week wasn't necessarily a bad experience. The phone itself was reliable and got the job done, and it forced me to cut way down my screen time.
But given the choice, I'll pick the sense of community and connection my smartphone allows over the freedom of disconnecting every time.
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