Lessons from an enforced digital detox – for two

When Geraldine Walsh’s phone broke, it meant a two-week enforced digital detox – for her and her four year old.

It seems as though my phone has its tight little antennas dug into me. I “need” my phone as much as the next person needs their’s. Like most people, I’ve forgotten to bring it with me on a night out and there have been days when I accidentally left it at work. It was temporary so the separation was bearable, albeit with a slight scratching underneath the skin until I was able to paw all over the screen again.

For some, the need to have their fingers grazing their mobile at all times is very real. An incessant panic hits when it’s lost, out of reach or the battery screams 3% with no charger nearby. Nomophobia, the fancy word for the fear of being without a phone, is completely understandable and is quite common. We’re a society in need of constant recognition, validation and connection after all.

I felt the reality of this phobia a few weeks ago when my beloved Samsung decided it needed a tune up. After giving me some garbled error that no reset could override, off it went to fulfil the duties of standard warranties. As quick as the error appeared, I was phoneless. Contactless. Empty. Anxious.

“For at least ten days,” the girl in the phone shop said. Ten days. Two weeks with weekends. Surviving without a phone is easy, right? No calls, no texts, no Twitter or Facebook at the swipe of the screen.

“It’ll be fine,” I thought as I handed over my phone for a fortnight of no contact. No, it’s not all that easy. Detoxing from your phone, I discovered, comes with panic, anxiety and paranoia. And I wasn’t the only one who suffered the loss of my phone. My four year old daughter did too. No YouTube, no Netflix, no games.

Sad to say, the withdrawal symptoms were very real, starting very quickly. I was barely home when I reached into my pocket, my fingers grasping at loose tissues and coppers but no phone. A heart stopping, panicked moment. Then realisation and anxiety that all calls, texts, social media, contact with the outside world had stalled.

For my daughter, who routinely asks to use my phone, there was confusion and annoyance that her favourite toy was no where to be seen.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so lost or isolated. I didn’t imagine I’d be desperate to check my Twitter or email. We have no landline but I didn’t think I’d worry about whether someone needed to contact me or what I’d do in an emergency. But I did, repeatedly. Anxiously.

Throughout all of my worries, my itches and my desperate need to stay in contact, what was worse was my daughter’s reaction. She felt the loss almost as much as I did, drawing inward when she didn’t get to use it.

I’m one of those mothers who never saw any harm in giving her little one her phone in the mornings at breakfast. I make no apologies for the fact that Netflix or YouTube at the dining table speeds things up before the school run. And yes, she may get my phone when we’re out for something to eat and probably more times than I’d care to admit. Two weeks without a mobile and I saw how my internet addiction was spreading to my daughter. “Can I have your phone Mammy?” “Sorry darling, it’s gone for repair.” To which I heard a chorus of disappointing moans and groans. In an instant she thought I was the worst mother ever who was obviously being mean and keeping the phone from her on purpose. A disgruntled four year old at 8am is not what a rushed, exhausted and social media barren mother needed.

I can now see how her addiction to Kids YouTube and my phone is not harmless. She became stubborn, unhelpful and angry at the fact that she couldn’t watch the same mindless surprise egg video for the hundredth time.

The day I got my phone back, all shiny and new looking, I’m embarrassed to admit, it went everywhere with me. I dared not put it down on the off chance there was something I needed to see on Facebook or read on Twitter. The fear of missing out is very real and I realise this is my biggest failing when it comes to needing my phone.

I’d like to be able to say that my two weeks detox meant I am more aware of my habits and that I’ve changed. I haven’t, not fully at least. I still check my email and social media accounts before I get out of bed in the morning. I almost always have my phone close by and I’ve set up more notifications because it seems I can’t have too many.

But I am now aware of my daughter’s overuse of my phone and this I have culled dramatically.

“Can I have your phone Mammy?” “Sorry Sweetie. It’s still not working properly.”

A humph and a disapproving glare and her attention is distracted elsewhere. Two hours later she asks the same question forgetting my original answer but once again I utter the same plausible excuse. I get the same reaction.

She’s four so I’m getting away with these white lies but for how long? She hasn’t had my phone since I got it back and I intentionally keep it out of her sight so the lure to it is not there. She’s asking less as the days wear on but she’s still itching to get her hands on it again.

My constant no’s are, in a way, my attempt to reprogramme her. Perhaps I should reprogramme myself first.

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