7 Ways I’m Fighting Screen Addiction
for the sake of my family and my missionary life
I remember my first cell phone was a little Nokia pay-as-you-go phone with a tiny screen and T9 texting format. I racked up a $300 cell phone bill texting friends in between making sandwiches at Subway. I grabbed an extra job picking up golf balls at a driving range to pay off that bill and eventually upgraded to an unlimited texting plan and a Motorola flip phone. Data plans didn’t even exist. What a world that was, but even without data plans or touch screens, I still managed to feed the roots of an obsession with the handheld promise of constant connection and endless activity.
I’m Lucas Pulley, and I’m a screen addict. (the first step is admitting it)
I know I’m a screen addict because I pull my phone out of my pocket to check it without reason a dozen times a day. Because the edge of my right index finger has a callus from clicking the lock button. Because the inside of my right pinky has a divot from the charger slot due to the way I hold my phone. Because one simple notification will lead to an hour of unnecessary searching for unnecessary activity, leaving me unsure what I was doing in the first place. Because I regularly feel “ghost vibrations” in my right pocket. Because my average daily phone screen time is 3 hours and 14 minutes.
Most in the research field agree there is plenty of correlating data, but not yet enough of a comprehensive data set to determine a causal relationship between screens and a growing mental health epidemic. Yet I have an abundance of clearly causal experience of how my screens effect my marriage, my kids, my friendships, my ability to cultivate meaningful community and connection. I can tell you all about how I struggle to be creative because so often creativity emerges in the context of boredom and silence, when the mind can wander, and yet my screens have cured my life of pesky boredom. I can tell you all about how screens have directly effected my relationship with God, because of the constant struggle to be still, to wait in listening, to rest in solitude. I am all too aware of how screens are threatening the flourishing of my marriage, the fathering of my kids, the vibrancy of my community, the faithfulness of my witness, the wellness of my soul, and my satisfaction in grace.
In the conviction following the sobriety of that awareness, I must fight. In the small chance that three or four of you out there want to fight too, I’ll risk the vulnerability of a post like this if it might help you. There are more screens in life, but this post focuses entirely on phones, relevant to any phone user but my experience as an iPhone user might leak out. Here are seven ways I’m battling screen addiction in 2019:
1) Customizing Notifications- “I own my phone, my phone does not own me.”
If you click “allow” to every request for an app to be able to utilize full notifications, there is a high possibility that you do not own your phone, your phone owns you. If you take a peak at every vibration, just to check, you have given your phone permission to control your attention (to lead you) for any reason from an HGTV sweepstakes email to a social media poke (2007 call back!). Notifications are important because they are about control and ownership. If you want your phone to lead and control you, let it notify you in every way, about everything. If you want to take responsibility for yourself, your attention span, your relationships, that means you need to take ownership of what your phone can and cannot notify you about, and how those notifications come to you.
I’ll allow some notifications to pop up on my home screen with a tone or vibration like texts and calls, I even select certain contacts that get custom notification settings. I’ll allow some notifications to pop up with no tone or vibration. I’ll silence other notifications to never pop up but exist simply as a “badge” in the corner of the app letting me know something is in there to check. Most of my apps have notifications and badges completely turned off, they cannot bother me for any reason.
2) Cutting Down to Essentials — “When downloading an App, the question isn’t ‘why not?’ but ‘why?’”
Nowadays our phones often have over 100 gigs of memory, and we no longer have memory concerns around downloading applications. You could have entire screens worth of task managers, versions of Candy Crush, dating apps, social media platforms, working apps, budgeting tools, shopping apps, productivity apps, learning platforms…etc. All of this creates an endless amount of activity and potential at the tip of your finger, and that is precisely the problem. If you want to spend less time buried in your phone, you need less things to do in it. Instead of downloading anything simply because I can, I’m trying to apply rigourous intentionality behind every download. Do I really need it? Why? How much will I use it? What kind of life will that create?
Delete non essentials. You are free to redownload it if you ever need it. Delete everything that only gets used once every few months. Go all Marie Kondo on your phone.
Side note: I actually deleted all of my social media apps off of my phone this year, restricting all social media time to laptop in certain time blocks (more on this later).
3) Home Screen Design — “We build Our environments, and our environments build us.”
You should put a whole lot of intentional thought into how you design your bedroom, your living room, and every other environment you steward, because every environment subtly co-creates its inhabitants. Do you want to be a reader? Then intentionally think through the design of your living room and your bedroom to be a space friendly to reading. The same applies to the home screen of your phone. It is an environment which can contribute to building your relationship with your phone.
What kind of relationship do you want to have with your phone/ipad/computer? Are you intending your device to have a specific, instead of comprehensive, function in your life? If so, how can you design the home screen of your device to help limit your use of that device within its designated function? Again, this is about ownership. A poorly designed home screen will dissolve personal ownership and responsibility. If you want your phone to be a work tool, your home screen should be exclusively work related apps, everything pushed further out of reach and conscious. If you want your phone to be a social media tool, load the home screen with social apps and then tuck the phone away when you need to focus on other things. Decide the function of the screen in your life, and design it toward that function.
4) Leveraging Your Wrist for Less Screen Time, Not More
The great dilemma: I want to be present with people, I’ve decided to never look at my phone in a meeting with someone. Yet there are still certain notifications I want to see immediately, certain interruptions I want to allow. A notification enabled watch sounds like a good solution, but an Apple Watch or Samsung is just another bottomless pit of interactive apps and notifications to be distracted by yet another screen.
Solution: notification enabled analog watches, my two favorite are the Martian Notifier and the Garmin VivoMove. These are analog watches, not digital screens, with no apps, only a small scrolling notification bar which will deliver to your wrist the notifications you deem necessary. These watches have drastically liberated me from my phone while allowing me to focus on the person in front of me.
5) App Limits — The Antidote for Youtube Comas and Pinterest Blackouts
(this might be iPhone specific). In one of the more recent software updates, the iPhone implemented a cool screen time feature. Within the Screen time preferences, you can actually choose to limit your daily screen time in certain app categories, like entertainment or news or productivity. I’ve found this to be a really helpful feature for certain apps that suck me in when I’m just trying to find an escape, but I still need to have on my phone. Like news apps or youtube, or even social media.
6) Scheduled Time Blocks for Social Media & Email
I mentioned deleting social media from my phone. There are certain activities I should not be flowing in and out of constantly, and therefore consuming all of my downtime and emotional capacity, but are activities that are scheduled in my calendar as a block of time. You don’t flow in and out of lunch constantly, that’s called overeating. You do it at noon for 30 minutes. That kind of perspective and intentional discipline applied to social media and email activities can be liberating.
I try to time block in my calendar for both email and social media engagement, like any other designated activity in my life, and now I have no need to think all day every day about whether or not to post, what to post or not to post, keeping up with the most recent posts. It’s given me back so much space for creativity and personal connection with people.
7) Contemplative Disciplines, Especially Unplugged Solitude.
Part of the difficulty with any addiction is an internal conflict of desire. We can clean up the circumstances of our lives to make that addiction more difficult to live into, but what about that core raw desire within that just wants to scroll twitter for 5 hours and avoid the sun and other humans. We want what we want, even if all our social media apps are buried on the fifth screen past our home screen with notifications turned off, we’ll still just go find it and scroll while sitting in line for tacos.
The trick isn’t killing our desire for our screens and what they promise, but instead discover and fan into flame even deeper and more healthy desires to overcome us. Those desires for face to face connection, real life community, rest and solitude and silence. The desire to commune in the intimacy of the triune God, to hear that still small voice of the Lord, to find rest in his presence, comfort in his peace. To receive from him a calling, a vision, a dream, and to give that dream the heights of our creative and emotional capacity.
Fanning into flame our redeemed core desires is the delight of the disciplines, and specifically contemplative disciplines are essential to recovering what our screens have taken away (a great resource on contemplative spirituality is Peter Scazerro’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality). I’m trying not to commit to too much too fast, but a daily habit of solitude, reflective reading, journaling, and a daily office/examen has been life giving. Sleep is a discipline too, and I’ve found better sleep by purchasing an old alarm clock to put next to my bed instead of my phone, and putting my phone in a drawer overnight.
My hope is not to create for myself, nor to propagate on others, a new law to follow, but to follow the gracious conviction of Jesus, experienced in my own story, toward the life that is truly life. A life surrendered to worship, intentional community, and sacrificial mission to the lost and the poor. If I can find a way to inherit that life with an iPhone in my pocket, cool, but if that means I need to return to a T9 texting Nokia pay-as-you-go without a data plan, sign me up. Whatever it takes to be faithful.