If you’re like me, your smartphone is the most precious object in your possession. My friends frequently comment about how efficient I am using my smartphone, generally because I have the latest app that does something cooler than what their phone does. Ever since I got my first smartphone in high school, it’s been a near-constant presence in my life, a comforting, glowing rectangle that I reach for when I’m bored, lonely or curious.
Having access to a smartphone has become such a natural part of my life that it’s hard to remember what it’s like not to have one. But because the Reese News Lab is working on a project for mobile news consumers, I wanted to take fresh look at how I use my phone. And sometimes, the best way to probe your relationship with something is to give it up.
So it was with headache-inducing anxiety that at midnight on January 13, I locked my phone in the Reese News Lab and walked back to my dorm room, untethered from the world for the first time since a summer spent kayaking after high school. And studies would show that I’m not alone in that fear. A 2012 study in the U.K. found that 66 percent of people surveyed were terrified of being without a phone, a phenomenon dubbed “nomophobia.”
I spent the next 24 hours without the device that has worn the back right pocket of many a pair of jeans. I also decided that in order to really do the experiment right, I shouldn’t have access to any kind of tablet, like my iPad, since it does many of the same things my smart phone does.
Like most people who have grown accustomed to living within arms reach of a cell phone, I was worried about the people that might try to contact me or that I might need to contact. Call it self-importance, call it “FOMO,” call it whatever you want, but I was nervous about giving up my phone because it is the device that connects me to people when I’m not with them.
Now, granted, I had had time to prepare – I knew I was giving up my phone a few days beforehand. I told my family and roommate that I would be sans-cellular device for the day and to reach me by email if they needed me. I thought about the fact that I would be lacking my phone’s stopwatch for my early morning runs, so I put on my old Timex Ironman watch for the day.
What I learned and felt during the day came as a bit of a surprise, especially because I felt like I knew my phone habits pretty well. At first, after I locked my phone away, I kept having repeated moments of terror that most people know well: “Wait, where’s my phone?!?” Patting of pockets and bags ensued for a second or two until the more rational part of my brain reminded me that I knew exactly where my phone was.
By the next morning, though, not having my phone was actually somewhat of a blessing and a weight lifted off my shoulders. It made me acutely aware of just how many phones I saw around me – walking though the quad, in class, at meals, in the news lab. And honestly, it wasn’t really that bad not having a phone. I realized that the little interstitial moments in the day were when I was most acutely aware of being without my phone.
It was when I was walking between classes, when I normally check email, call my grandmother, peruse Twitter, and listen to podcasts or music. It was when I was in a bookstore and wanted to check if I had gotten a subscription to New York Magazine or The New Yorker and knew that the confirmation email would be oh-so-easy to pull up on my phone, but instead I had to find a table to take out my laptop, connect to WiFi, and check my email. As a photographer, I missed not being able to whip out my phone to snap a picture when I saw the way the lamplight reflected through raindrops hanging off bare branches of the trees on the quad, a little moment in itself. It bugged me not to be able to fact check and Google the things I heard in lectures, conversations, and meetings.
Despite complaining about not having a phone for the day, the entire experience really wasn’t all that taxing. I was still able to check email. I still found ways to record things I needed to remember by just writing them down on scrap paper. I still found ways to contact the people I wanted to talk to. The revelation came when I realized that I didn’t reach my phone as a phone; to me it was important because of everything else that I did with it. I didn’t miss out on connecting with friends and colleagues, but for a day I was longing for everything else my phone can do that I’ve grown accustomed to having at arms’ distance away.
When I finally got to turn on my phone, I expected vibrating and buzzing from texts, emails, tweets, and notifications that had come in on a phone lying dormant all day. A handful of texts buzzed in after a few tense minutes when I wondered if I should be worried about my self-esteem, but after that I felt like nothing had happened. I had my phone back, but it seemed like the thing that I missed during the day hadn’t been the ability to text friends, but rather everything else that I can do with my phone.
I woke up this morning at the sound of my iPhone alarm at 7 a.m., with my phone lying next to my pillow plugged in the wall. After turning my alarm off, I got the weather for the day with the press of a button and the swipe of a finger. I learned that I would probably two layers to go running, despite the 70-degree temperatures the day before. I checked email to make sure there was nothing I needed to respond to, and then a few more flicks of my thumb had me checking my Twitter and Instagram feeds. Satisfied, I rolled out of bed, ready to start the day with iPhone in hand to get me through all the little bits of time that I find during the day.