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January 5, 2013

A smartphone junkie's life is a daily struggle

Emily Popek
The Daily Star

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Hi, my name is Emily Popek, and I’m addicted to my smartphone.

I never thought this would happen to me. For years, I was the lone holdout among my friends. I really didn’t need a cellphone. I was usually near a land line or a computer, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to check their email or watch videos on such a tiny screen.

Then a few things happened. For one thing, my role here at The Daily Star changed such that it became increasingly likely that someone might, in fact, need to reach me at the grocery store — or wherever else I might be. So I got a smartphone for work.

My parents, who are classic early adopters of new technology, were always crowing about this app or that one on their iPhones. But to me, my phone was a phone — nothing more. So when my husband and I moved into a new house, we didn’t set up a land line. I figured my phone would be good enough.

When I got pregnant, and began the customary dizzying round of doctor’s visits, I found out that my phone had this neat calendar app to keep track of my appointments. I also figured out how to check my email, which gave me something to do in the waiting room besides reading outdated magazines.

But I was still only using my phone recreationally. I could quit any time. Checking email or Facebook on it still seemed awkward, compared to sitting down at a computer.

Then my daughter was born. And somewhere amid the myriad other ways in which my life changed forever, I went from a casual phone user to a hardcore phone addict.

My little girl spent much of her infancy in someone’s arms — mostly mine. Sitting down at a computer to type became at best a luxury; often an impossibility. And I became immobilized for sudden, unpredictable chunks of time as I sat to rock, nurse and soothe her. During all this, my phone transformed from a pleasant distraction to a life-giving device.

My phone let me reach out via emails, photos and social media to break the isolation of my long winter’s maternity leave. It gave me something besides the wall to stare at during 2 a.m. feedings, and, I’ll admit it, something bright and shiny to distract my girl during difficult diaper changes.

I was hooked, mainlining data like a fiend. And now I’m one of them —the phone addicts. I take my phone to bed with me, and reach for it reflexively like a smoker reaching for a cigarette when I wake up. I get twitchy if I leave the house — heck, if I leave the room — without it.

They say the first step toward breaking an addiction is admitting you have a problem. And sometimes I think I do. But being addicted to my phone feels like being addicted to oxygen. Sure, it feels like I couldn’t live without it, but is it an addiction when everyone else is doing it too? Or is this just what 21st century life looks like?

My phone and I are at a turning point, though, and I need to make a decision. I’ve read the statistics about where all this leads, and it’s sobering stuff. “Too much screen time means health decline,” an ABC News story from 2011 proclaims. “Cellphone use linked to selfish behavior,” a University of Maryland Business School study finds. The list goes on and on.

Do I want my daughter to grow up with a mom who’s always got one eye on a screen? Not for a minute. So I am taking steps to break the habit.

I’m not going to go cold turkey — I think the withdrawal would be too tough to bear. But I think I can taper off. I’ve been reading about some of the tactics health experts suggest for quitting smoking, like forcing yourself to delay a craving, or avoiding “trigger situations.”

I don’t think chewing gum will help me fight the urge to check my Facebook. But who knows? At this point, I’ll try anything. And with any luck, I can work my way back to using my phone responsibly.

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor at The Daily Star. She can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 217, or epopek@thedailystar.com.