I learned long ago that it’s almost impossible to keep a New Year’s resolution. Yet, in late December I made one. And not just to myself, but to my family. The promise? To put my smartphone away as soon as I get home from work, and only pick it up again the next morning.
Will Ferrell is all of us in this PSA about device-addicted parents The decision is a long time coming. Ever since I gave up my BlackBerry for an iPhone a few years ago, I’ve found it nearly impossible to put it down. The endless Twitter conversations, the constant stream of Instagram posts, the incessant checking of sports scores—my brain is always telling me to pick up my cell and give each app another scroll through. If it’s anywhere near me, it soon ends up in my hands.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. A 2016 survey from research firm Dscout found that people touch their phones 2,617 times a day. Another report revealed that we check our phones, on average, once every 12 minutes. As parents, it’s easy to see these studies in action: Go to the park, an indoor play place and even the tobogganing hill and without fail, you’ll see moms and dads pulling out their phones every few minutes.
Just because everyone’s doing it, though, doesn’t mean it’s right—especially when our kids are around, watching our every move. I knew my own cellphone use was becoming a problem when I couldn’t focus on putting my kids to bed without having my device in my hand. There was a time when I could just lie next to my children, sing them a song and wait until they fell asleep. Now, I mumble through a tune while scrolling through Twitter, wondering why I even look at an app that I can’t stand anyway.
Shae, my six-year old middle child, wasn’t shy about calling me on my excessive phone use. “You’re looking at your phone again,” she’d say, with more than a hint of frustration in her voice. “When are you putting it away?” I felt guilty, but I would justify it—if I didn’t look at my phone, I’d fall asleep putting her to bed, and my whole night would be wasted.
A few months ago, I knew I needed to make a real effort to stop using my phone, especially around my children. My nine-year-old and six-year-old had gotten their own iPods, which meant setting limits on their device time. My wife and I agreed on giving them an hour after school or a couple hours on weekends. But as we were discussing their screen time, I started feeling guilty about my own. If I wanted them to use screens in moderation, I should be doing so myself.
That’s when I thought about the resolution. If I give myself a date—January 1—and tell my kids that was going to put it away after 5 p.m., then I’d have to stick to it, right?
As it turns out, kicking a cellphone addiction is easier said than done. Academic studies have found that mobile usage is as addictive as hard drugs, and even high-ranking technology executives have started sounding the alarm over our growing digital dependence (like the former Facebook executive who recently said that social media is a “dopamine-driven feedback loop.”)
I broke my promise about three days into the new year, after the holidays were over and the e-mails began arriving in my inbox again. It started with answering messages, but once the phone was in my hand, I found it impossible to resist other apps. (I once tried to delete the Twitter app from my phone, but I reinstalled it a few days later after some important news broke.)
“You said you were going to use your phone less this year,” Shae says. But I have not used my phone less this year. I often use it after dinner when I should be focused on getting the kids to do their homework—calling my name three times before I look up is not unusual—and I’ve still got it in my hand when I’m putting them to bed. Fortunately, my bad habits haven’t transferred to the kids (yet). Molly, my nine-year-old, is good about sticking to her hour, but she does give me digs about how I make her get off her iPod yet I still use mine. Shae puts up more of a fight, but she also knows when to quit.
Despite my failure, I haven’t given up trying to kick the habit. And I have taken some new measures to disconnect. When I go out with my wife on date night, I keep my phone at home. (She brings hers so the babysitters can call if necessary.) In the evening, at dinner and especially on the weekends when our family is together at home, I put it as far away from me as I can. When it dies, I sometimes force myself to wait a while before plugging it back in. I’m always reminding myself that I’m not missing anything by not checking.
While these tactics are often effective for an hour or two at a time—and I do feel much less of a desire to check when the phone is inaccessible—they’re not perfect. At some point, my phone starts calling to me again. I still haven’t quite worked up the courage to delete the most addictive apps.
My next move is to make my phone unusable at night. I’ve thought about getting a “dumb” phone that can only make calls and receive texts to use after work hours, or buy a safe for which only my wife has the key. In any case, I need to make another attempt at my resolution and drop the phone addiction, or else my kids could soon get hooked, too.