Tuesday started like any other: Before I was even really awake, I looked at my phone. Weather. Transphobes. Did Anybody Famous Die? Potential Polly Pocket/Scrabble/Settlers of Catan movies. But unlike other days, I then put it in a drawer.
I’m not good at regulating my behavior. This is obvious to anyone who has ever watched me order chocolate on the internet. So it was with both fear and curiosity that I accepted a challenge from my editor to experience a day without my phone. The challenge was in response to phone bans hitting public high schools around Australia, something Unesco has called for globally to reduce distraction, and cyberbullying and improve learning.
Having put my phone away, I faced my first hurdle: my morning run. It’s more of an attempt to outrun, really – an exercise in getting as far away from my thoughts as possible, via podcasts or music. At first, all I could hear was the sound of my breaths. I wondered, is that what breaths are meant to sound like? Then my footfall was loud and quick. Was I like this every morning? With music playing, my runs are gazelle-like, elegant, and swift. But it wasn’t too long before other sounds crept in. A couple of birds were shouting at one another. A kid on a bike furiously rang a bell. I heard a spoon clink in a coffee cup.
“Hello!” I said to whoever was nearby. “Good morning!”
Once home, I ticked a few things off my to-do list. I spent a few minutes finishing a job I’d been putting off for weeks. Thought seriously about doing my tax return. Sent several more emails. Nearly opened the ATO website but didn’t. I felt an unfamiliar sense of quiet achievement. As I completed yet another extremely simple task I should have done weeks ago, I thought, “Am I concentrating harder or filling in empty time? Is this productivity or am I afraid to stare into the void?”
Eventually, I realized I was going to have to go to the bathroom. My heart raced with inaction, with the sensation of being trapped in a small room devoid of stimulus. It was a relief to be finished, in more ways than one.
From there, my anxiety settled. Work flowed more easily, although eventually, I began to fantasize about all the exciting content I would come back to when the day was over. And I recognized this last feeling: a craving. Soon my ban would be over and I could gorge on as much phone as I wanted. Despite a lovely run and improved productivity, I hadn’t regulated my behavior at all – I’d just delayed the inevitable. Banning my phone for eight hours had taught me nothing.
Learning to self-regulate
Janelle Booker, a Perth-based counseling psychologist, fully supports the school phone ban. She says it’s “brilliant” because using our phones for tiny dopamine hits is “a vicious cycle”.
“When [teenagers] are on their phones all the time they become very dysregulated,” she tells me. “The biggest thing that calms down a brain is face-to-face interaction with someone we know, and who knows us.”
Booker says young people should instead be out in the quad, having in-person conversations and being physically active.
It feels a long way from my experience of being both a young person and an adult. As an awkward, anxious person, for decades I’ve relied on my devices for social connection. Some of those relationships have become “IRL” ones. More than once, they’ve kept me alive. Juxtaposed against expert opinion, I feel extremely online and, actually, a little embarrassed. Does taking a kid’s phone teach them to regulate their behavior, or just make them feel bad?
Unbeknown to me, my 18-year-old, Quinn, is listening in. As Booker describes the need for education alongside the ban (“they’re just going to be sneaking into their lockers or toilets to be on Snapchat”), a message pops up on Discord: “I have opinions.”
Mobile phone bans were introduced during my children’s high school experiences. Banning them did the opposite of what they wanted it to, they say. “Having a total ban is reductive,” they tell me. “That’s not to say you should just go to kids and be like, use it whenever you want. But if you show them you expect that they’re going to do wrong, why would they think otherwise?”
Now, a kid who wants to be able to use their phone whenever they want would say this but they’re right that, as with any dependency, removing the device doesn’t resolve the addiction. Research shows taking phones away tends to result in higher academic performance, but so does learning self-regulation. When I ask Booker if banning phones will teach a child to interact with others face-to-face, she concedes it will not.
Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specializes in digital spaces and self-control, says the difference in the impact of technology on children and adolescents compared with adults is significant. “Both because of brain development and wiring up for emotional regulation and higher-order thinking skills,” she explains, “but also because of what’s at stake if you are not ‘productive’ at work or in life.”
Brewer says that to regulate their behavior, young people need a positive sense of their future selves. “Self-control requires you to be able to delay immediate gratification because you have something more worthwhile to work towards,” she says. “Do they feel a sense of control over their lives and future? If not, it’s easy to just spend another bunch of hours online.”
I stop to wonder how many adults in my life would describe themselves as feeling a sense of control over their lives and future. Having a phone in my hand does mimic a sense of control – I can always find information, I’m always contactable, and I will never be lost.
As though she can hear my thoughts, Brewer says the issue of devices is complex. “It’s handy to discern what we’re reliant or dependent on – it’s often not the phone itself, but the people and connections. We have become reliant on a constant stream of digital dopamine snacks that we can graze on at any time and this becomes both habitual and automatic.”
‘Parents are often in the dark
Dr Tanya Linden, a senior teaching fellow at the University of Melbourne and an expert in technology for education, believes phone bans are a necessary solution based on the resources at hand, considering our overworked and underpaid education workers. But it’s not ideal. She would prefer phones weren’t banned but replaced by something more creative. “Students are like us: when I sit in a boring meeting, I subconsciously try to take out my phone and start reading.” Simply taking them away is not in itself a solution.
“We also need to consider that if kids simply go home to a digital wild west without any skills to mediate, we are doing them a disservice,” adds Brewer. “Parents are often in the dark about their kids’ activities and how to set healthy boundaries. I recognize, too, that schools cannot teach it all – some of these issues are personal responsibility and due diligence, but also are increasingly public health issues.”
At the end of Tuesday, with my head full, I went back to the drawer. Three missed calls, no voicemails. A few dozen messages scattered across social media and chat apps. My phone had survived without me, and vice versa.
I took a breath. Did I want this device back in my life? Surely, after eight hours without it, I had conquered my life-long addictions to positive reinforcement from strangers on the internet and calling my dad for reassurance every 10 minutes.
The answer was no. It’s back in my pocket as I await the comforting chime demanding attention from the internet.