When left to my own devices
Why yes, I am proud of that subject line.
My daughter, Cass, has recently stopped taking naps.
For some of you, this might not mean anything. For those of you with babies or toddlers, currently in the thick of a life that centers around your children’s sleep schedules, you know the gravity of this shift. Because Cass is no longer napping, the hours before her bedtime can easily become ... fraught. Between 4:00-6:00 p.m. my normally sweet, easy-going girl is equal parts hungry and tired, and therefore cranky. What may once have been a persistent request for a snack now often becomes an all-out tantrum. In the late afternoons, everything from deciding how many Goldfish is enough to determining when to stop playing and pick up toys becomes an intense negotiation, a battle of wills. (For better or worse, she usually wins.)
To help us maintain some sanity, our household’s nighttime routine runs like clockwork. Billy and I, taking turns, guide our daughter through washing hands and eating dinner, going to the potty and taking a bath, putting on pajamas and brushing teeth, reading stories and going to sleep. We’ve programmed her sound machine so that, at 6:45, a lullaby starts playing, signaling that it's time to read books. By 7:15, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” shifts to white noise, the soundtrack to a (hopefully) full night’s sleep. We’re a well-oiled unit. While one of us handles books and bedtime, the other cleans up the kitchen and bathroom.
By the time 7:30 rolls around, I’m spent, eager to relax after a busy day and toddler-negotiation-filled afternoon. If it’s a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, I’ll typically have the night to myself: Billy spends those evenings performing on Twitch.
A weeknight to myself! My only task is to keep an eye on the baby monitor, and that doesn’t require much of me. (One big perk of losing a nap is that our daughter now tends to sleep soundly through the night.) I have all the options in the world that is my home: I could read a book or watch a movie. Soak in a bubble bath or invite a friend over. Tidy up my closet or do some writing. Attend an online event or start a new DIY project. The hours stretch out ahead of me, full of possibility.
Despite my many options, I do almost the same thing every night: plop on the couch, grab the remote, put on a show that I’m only halfway invested in, and distract myself from that show by looking at my phone—responding to texts, checking email, or scrolling social media. Before I know it, it’s time to go to bed. I head to my bedroom feeling groggy, tired, and unsatisfied. How did that time pass so quickly? And what did I spend it doing, exactly?
You might do some version of the same thing. After a full day of work, many of us spend our wild and precious evenings zoning out—half paying attention to something on TV, half paying attention to our phones, feeling fully unsatisfied.
By this point, we know that our phones are built to lure us in. Smartphone apps are deliberately designed to keep users engaged as much as possible—using the same kind of dopamine-boosting variable reward patterns that keep gamblers addicted. Whether we’re simply bored or checking our phones out of habit, we’re subconsciously looking for that dopamine hit that comes from receiving likes, getting a new piece of information, or discovering something that makes us laugh.
Of course, those dopamine hits are fleeting. At least for me, I usually wind up feeling worse than I did before I began scrolling.
But not reaching for my phone—even the idea of not having my smartphone in the same room as I am—seems harder than ever. Our phones have become increasingly intertwined with our lives, so much so that the idea of a “digital detox” feels impossible.
“A digital detox requires shelving technology almost entirely: taking a break from screens, social media and video conferences for multiple days,” Sophia Epstein recently wrote for the BBC.
The goals—reducing stress or anxiety, and reconnecting with the physical world—are well-intentioned. And although there aren’t scientifically proven benefits from periods of tech abstinence, that hasn’t stopped the digital detox from becoming a coveted challenge.
But that challenge has become far harder to accomplish since 2012, when researchers first used the term. Screens were already important then, even with nascent versions of apps and social media. Yet attempting a digital detox in 2012 would have been a cake walk compared to now, when more than ever, our lives are impossible to detangle from technology. We pay with our phones at stores, work on our computers and tablets and maintain relationships through apps. And since the pandemic, our life-tech connection has intensified even further.
But after more than a year of limiting time on my phone, I felt like my choice to be offline had become a choice to isolate. I missed out on last-minute text invites and seeing friends’ important life updates. I felt disconnected.
So, in a bizarro New Year’s resolution, I began 2023 by rejoining Instagram. I started chatting with friends I’d lost touch with. I posted more regularly on local Facebook groups. I didn’t chide myself for using my phone on weekends. I picked up my phone, night after night, looking for that elusive dopamine boost.
Now, after several months of increased time on social media, I’m once again debating logging off. But I’m hesitant; I know the consequences. I wish I could choose one direction and feel great about it. Right now, it all feels like a lose-lose.
The careful planning around our daughter’s nighttime schedule pays off. Most mornings, she wakes up happy, well-rested, and ready to take on the day. There’s comfort in the routine. It’s beneficial for everyone involved.
My evenings, on the other hand, are mostly an afterthought; my mornings, groggy and grumpy. Once again, I’m reminded that my life might be better if I treated myself like a toddler. How much happier would I be if I planned my own routines with such thought and care?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m here again, struggling with the same, boring phone addiction and worries as before. I’ve done many of the things I’m supposed to do—turn off notifications, limit phone use before bed, not install work email on my phone—and, still, here I am.
But of course I’m here again! My brain is as sweet as it is dumb. We all struggle with these things. That doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to improve the situation.
“Just because it’s not our fault that there are a million things to be depressed about and our lives are increasingly mediated by our phones doesn’t mean we have to sit back and continue to scroll for half our waking life,” Magdalene Taylor wrote for VICE. “For the love of God, let’s have a little agency. It’s as though we’re choosing to punish ourselves.”
In an ideal world, I’d figure out something fulfilling to do instead of spending time on my phone—a specific activity to replace the time spent scrolling. I’d learn to garden, paint something, or work on newsletter essays earlier so I’m not always feeling sheepish about how they end. I can already envision the best version of myself: Hiking, exercising, playing with my daughter, laughing with friends, cooking delicious meals—with nary a phone in sight. I can also picture how much I’d want to document those moments, to prove how great life is without a phone. And therein lies the problem. (Does this mean I should get a digital camera?)
I don’t have the answers. But I’m hoping you do. If you’re at peace with your phone and social media usage, please share! I’d love to hear how you got to that place. Or if you, too, are struggling, I’d love to hear those stories as well. You can share in the comments or reply to this email and write directly to me.
Just because I’m back here doesn’t mean my prior screen-free attempts were failures. As we’ve entered a new season of the year, I’m reminded that we all have seasons in our lives—times when some habits stick and others don’t. Soon enough, I’ll figure out something that works for me ... for a while. And then I’ll figure it out all over again.