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No one likes to think they are addicted to their phone, yet the average person checks it an astonishing 221 times a day, starting at 7.31 in the morning before we’re even out of bed and continuing past bedtime in a kind of never-ending dopamine loop. This is worrying. Using our phones too often can actually cause health problems, such as eye strain and damage. This can be prevented by reducing our screen time or using blue light blocking glasses to prevent any blue light emissions from damaging our eyes. People really need to reduce their screen time before it becomes a bigger problem.

Those depressing statistics from a survey of 2,000 people by Tecmark (a content marketing agency) prompted the authors (and husband and wife) Emlyn Rees and Josie Lloyd to question just how reliant on their phones their whole family had become. Like many parents, they regularly criticised their teenage daughter for spending too much time on her smartphone, while incessantly checking their own. Adults are worse offenders, spending around three hours a day on their phones, whereas secondary school-aged girls spend 2.1 hours and boys 1.7 hours. Heavy users even feel their phone is part of them like an arm or leg, a study at the University of Missouri found earlier this year – and their blood pressure and heart rate rose when they were separated from their phones, while their performance in cognitive tests fell.

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So horrified were Rees and Lloyd by our addiction to smartphones, they have written a new book with ideas, games and puzzles to encourage families to turn off their phones for a while and enjoy face-to-face contact. Last week, the whole family – Emlyn, Josie, and their daughters Tallulah, 15, Roxie, 11 and eight-year-old Minty – opted for a week-long ban. They locked their phones, iPad and Kindle in a kitchen drawer, with a good deal of trepidation. Here’s how they got on.

The mum’s story

Josie Lloyd, 46

When did we all stop wearing watches? With all the phones switched off, none of us has a clue how late we are for school.

I’m itching to check my phone and glance longingly at the drawer wondering if I’ll get away with cheating. I miss multitasking – scanning through Groupon emails and the blog from the fitness instructor I have never used, while stirring the porridge and fielding questions from the kids about lost shin pads and cardies.

After the school run, I take our dog to the beach where he accidentally ends up centre shot as a TV crew is filming an interview. I desperately miss not being able to call Emlyn and share the moment. It’s the kind of small, inconsequential thing I’m so used to sharing with him. I feel disconnected for the first time.

Home alone, I sit down at my computer to work, but it takes every ounce of strength I have not to turn on the internet. I can see three alerts on the Skype button. Who wants me? I’m desperate to know.

I’m beginning to realise how big my Facebook addiction is. Not that I post that often myself, but I’m ashamed to admit that I like to snoop – a habit born out of procrastination. I’m noticeably more focused on work.

By Wednesday, my twitchiness has gone and a sense of peace has descended. I feel unmonitored. Free. Like I’m on holiday.

After dinner on Thursday, we hang out in the kitchen together. It feels both lovely and unusual to be all just chatting with nothing else to do. I realise how often I am not really “present” with the children, even though we are in the same room. Not just Facebook, but being on rolling 24/7 admin duty for the family: organising lifts, internet shopping, working out who’s taking which kid where. They only ever get one part of me. But now we are really connecting, loafing round the kitchen like you do when you’ve just arrived on holiday in Spain and there’s no wi-fi in the house.

There are practical problems, though: I have totally forgotten about the school trip and now I can’t access the parents’ WhatsApp group to check the details. On Saturday I fail to pick up Minty from the swimming pool as instructed, and I don’t realise Roxie’s hockey is cancelled because she can’t phone me. In the end she just walks home and everything works out absolutely fine. I wouldn’t normally let her walk back on her own, and if I did I’d be constantly texting her asking if she’s all right. It makes me think how much phones allow us to mollycoddle children, as we’re able to remotely parent them rather than let them make their own decisions.

Phones also make people more flaky; they’re able to cancel plans at the last minute with no fall-out. A friend I’d arranged to meet for coffee texts me to cancel but doesn’t realise I wouldn’t see it, so I wait in the cafà twiddling my thumbs.

Sometimes, having a phone is a must. On a trip to Hove, I can’t park anywhere as you need a phone to ring in and pay. And I was horrified to miss a text from a really close friend to say her dad had died; it’s the kind of message you want to respond to instantly, to give a virtual hug. I just hope she wasn’t hurt by my lack of response.

On Monday, I turn on my phone again. There are several hundred emails, but I barely missed a thing. I am, however, straight back to my old ways, which makes me sad: texting people while I’m cooking dinner and half-listening to the children. I now realise I need much firmer boundaries, particularly in front of them: no emails or Facebook at the weekends, no working with my phone on the desk, and no more giving half-attention to everything. I need to be fully engaged with whatever I’m doing – whether that’s work or the family.

The dad’s story

Emlyn Rees, 44

I’ve always been an early adopter of technology and I’m even the proud owner of an A-grade in the very first computer studies O-level from 1987.

That said, I’d recently started feeling guilty about my relationship with my many gadgets. I’d check the sports results when I could be outside kicking a ball around with the kids. Somewhere along the line, I’d become addicted and had turned into a continual user, without even thinking why. And looking around I saw I wasn’t alone.

Even so, I didn’t like the idea of coming offline. How could I survive without checking Facebook and Twitter at least once every ten minutes? And how would they survive without me? Would people think I was rude?

It was truly horrible to begin with. It reminded me of quitting smoking. I got the twitches, reaching for the phone in my pocket that was no longer there. I suffered that same “vacant” feeling induced by nicotine withdrawal.

My dependency on my phone and the difficulty of living without it manifested itself in practical ways. I don’t have a watch. But without a phone, I no longer knew the time. Combine that with my lack of Google Maps and online booking, and I found myself running late for meetings, missing trains, and having panic attacks in the car.

My downtime became similarly messy. Where were the kids? What was I meant to pick up from the shops? And when did terrestrial TV get so targeted at older people? I wanted my streamed TV box sets and movies back again.

But it wasn’t all bad. The withdrawal twitches stopped after a couple of days. I’d still visualise the kitchen drawer where my phone was, but I’d stopped planning ways to sneak down and check it at night. I talked to my family more, a lot more. There were better bedtime stories, chattier meals and longer, more adventurous walks. There suddenly seemed to be a lot more time. Time to play silly games and have fun.

By the end of the week, I genuinely felt I could have stayed off longer. Plugging back in was like sticking my head into a fast flowing river. So much information hit me, it nearly swept me away.

But I now saw the ridiculous amount of Facebook and Twitter messages and notifications as information I didn’t necessarily need to react to at all. The pleading messages I’d been sent from Twitter and Facebook to tell me I was being missed in my network were wrong. I wasn’t.

I’m not saying I’m now off it for good. Far from it: I’m delighted to be back on. Like most people, I find it very hard to resist the lure of instant communication, accessible information, and cute kittens falling off curtains. But what I have learnt is that I need to be more balanced in how I use it. I don’t need it all the time. And the time I really don’t need it – the end of the working day and at weekends with family and friends – can be the most precious time of all.

The teenager’s story

Talullah Rees, aged 15

I was annoyed about this experiment at first: why were we being dragged into this? I don’t think the older generation understands how attached we are to our phones. They are our main way of communicating with our friends and feeling part of the group.

In an average day I probably use my iPhone for an hour and a half – mainly for music, communicating with friends on Snapchat and Instagram and for looking things up. It’s the first thing I look at when I wake up, checking my messages and instantly starting conversations with people on social media even before I get out of bed.

So I wasn’t looking forward to a whole week without it, but it was surprising. One of the first things I noticed was how much better I slept. Mum doesn’t like it but I usually sleep with my phone next to me, and sometimes I fall asleep with it in my hand, which I know is really bad. Conversations can go on until quite late and you don’t want to be the first one to be rude and not reply; once we were “talking” until 5am, then I got up for school at 7am. The conversations go round in your head afterwards, and you’re always listening out for more messages, then wondering whether to reply. You feel a pressure to be available all the time. If you don’t reply within the minute to a post, someone will send five question marks wondering where you are and why you’re not speaking to them. When I didn’t have my phone, my sleep felt so much calmer.

The other big positive was how much more time I had, especially for homework. Usually I have my phone next to me on the desk, and it’s difficult to ignore the alerts because you feel an urge to reply and it does stop your flow. I would say I did my homework twice as fast without the distraction – I did an RE project in half an hour, which normally would have taken an hour. I also read a novel, which I haven’t done for so long, and it surprised me how much I enjoyed it.

It was quite odd realising how much there is to do in the house. I spent loads more time with my sisters – dancing, drawing, just messing about – and we were never bored. Generally I spent more time than usual away from my bedroom, and one night helped Mum make soup. It was great to catch up with her, which I know is not considered cool at my age.

The worst aspect of the week was not having that connection with my friends. I didn’t feel “in” with them as we’d get to school and they would be talking about what happened last night on social media and I had no idea what they were talking about. I definitely felt left out.

I still love my phone but I’ve learnt that there’s so much more time in a day when you aren’t consumed by it. I’ve realised I shouldn’t have it with me every single second, and I should definitely put it away during homework. You can always catch up on conversations on Instagram later.

The child’s story

Roxie Rees, aged 11

I’ve only just got a phone since starting secondary school in September and now it was being taken away from me. I’d say I spend about 45 minutes a day on the phone, mainly texting people (I probably send about 10 texts an evening) and playing games likeCrossy Road and Subway Surfers. I’m not allowed on Instagram yet, although all my new friends at school are on it and if you go outside at lunchtime half the year are on their phones checking Instagram or having arguments about Instagram, which is annoying.

There were practical problems for me not having my phone for a week. When hockey was cancelled I couldn’t phone home to get a lift and my friend’s phone was out of credit, so it got complicated. I also text my friends each evening to see where we will be meeting each other at school, so of course I missed that too and had to go in on my own.

But there were good things too. During the week, I did a lot more reading than I would normally do and I noticed we took our border collie Ziggy for lots more walks – all the family together rather than just Mum or Dad. I found I talked a lot more to my parents and spent more time with my sisters, choreographing dance routines with my eight-year-old sister and doing sketches with Tallulah. We set ourselves a task to draw something by the end of the day, which we had to show the other person.

It seemed more peaceful without the phone – you didn’t have to remember to keep checking it or to charge it. I also found it easier to get up in the morning because I’d had a better night’s sleep.

At the end of the experiment I was glad to get it back out of the kitchen drawer, but the only text on there was a message to say I’d run out of credit.

Andy McGowan
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