I remember the first smartphone I ever owned.
I lived in Australia at the time and was looking to upgrade my old clunky Nokia. I walked past a store that was advertising the new iPhone 3G, which allowed internet access on the go.
At first, I was shocked by the price and couldn’t rationalize the purchase, but after about an hour of being wooed by the salesperson, I decided to go for it.
This was in 2008, only 11 years ago.
At the time, at least in Australia, seeing an iPhone was rare. Most people had flip phones or small Nokias with grey screens. The iPhone, by contrast, looked like a TV in my hand.
For the first few weeks as the owner of an iPhone, I was almost a mini-celebrity in my social circle. Everywhere I went people would comment on my new device.
“Is that an I-Phone?”
“Can you get the internet on that things?”
“Is it worth getting?”
My answer to all these questions was yes. I went from iPhone skeptic to a fan, to salesman within a few days of buying.
Over the next few months, very subtly, my behavior changed. I started spending more time looking at this tiny little screen in my hand. I started waking up with the phone next to me and using it last thing at night. I felt more comfortable in public when I had my phone, I found I was never bored when I had it nearby.
All these seem like positive behaviors. Yet under the surface, there was something strange about it. Being so intimate and connected to a device felt weird. It was the first time I cared more about being on my phone than talking to people.
Fast forward to today, and you know that this behavior is just the norm.
Everywhere you go, faces are glued to screens. People sit in cafes, restaurants, buses, and toilets on their phones. It is perfectly ok to tune out the world and to go online no matter where you are.
For a long time, I struggled for a way to understand why we love interacting with phones and technology so damn much. What is it that makes us crave it, obsess about it, and also hate it at the same time?
Finally, I settled on the word ‘crutch’.
There are actually two definitions of the word.
The first is a support typically fitting under the arm for use by the disabled in walking.
The second is a source or means of support or assistance that is relied on heavily or excessively.
I think that our smartphones actually match both definitions.
Over the past ten years, we have become used to depending on them to support our tasks, to give us access to information and to essentially make up for our shortcomings.
But at the same time, we have come to rely on them heavily and excessively for emotional connection and validation.
Try this: go to a public place with your phone in your pocket or bag. See how long it takes sitting alone before you start to feel the need to look at your phone. Not when you think you need to. When you feel that you need to.
I’ll bet within 5 minutes or less your emotional desire to use your phone will kick in. It will find a rational reason that you need to use your phone.
As soon as you use your crutch, you will feel a sense of relief.
(This is the part where I am supposed to counterbalance this argument with points about how technology helps connect us, makes us smarter, etc. You already get that.)
If you broke your leg, a crutch is a good tool to help. If you need to send an email or text someone to make plans, a phone is a good tool for that.
But if you begin to use the crutch to avoid standing on your leg, that’s stupid. Nobody would keep using a crutch after their leg was healed. Yet that’s exactly what most of us do with our phones once they stop being useful. We keep using them.
Our phones go from being a tool to being a companion. They go from helping to make life easier to hindering our ability to be alone, to focus, do anything without having them close by.
Do I have a solution to this problem?
Yes. And you already know what it is.
When you’re finished using your phone as a tool, put it away. Don’t keep leaning on it as a crutch thinking it will make you feel better.
The constant connection becomes disabling after awhile.
Let go of the constant crutch and be strong on your own.
This will make you more powerful than you realize.