Rethink Your Relationship with Technology: An Interview with Becca Grosskurth

Sometimes things fall right into place. In last week’s post investigating our relationship with technology, I suggested you could ‘Trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone,’ to prevent the problems created by smartphones.  Then I thought, “Hey, my coworker Becca Grosskurth did that! I wonder if she wants to talk about it.” Last week I sat down to hear about her experience. I'm glad I did, because I learned a lot. Specifically, I learned there are plenty of ways to use your phone for good: like using Instagram to help you be more grateful, connecting deeply with your closest friends, or telling someone "You are loved" by not looking at your phone.

Cam: Two months ago you traded your smartphone for a flip phone – what was your motivation?

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Becca: The journey started when I started working on listening to people better. And I realized that one of the things that makes me the happiest is having connection with people. Then I started reading about how toxic our relationship with technology can be. It got me thinking, “How is my phone or my relationship with social media negatively impacting my ability to connect with people?” I realized I was on my phone a lot so I started examining my motivations for posting things. I started wondering, “Am I posting this because I have this genuine thought I want to share or is it because I want attention?”
After breaking up with my significant other, I realized that I was masking loneliness with over sharing or with communicating electronically. Because when you communicate electronically, you can package your words, you can package your pain in a way that’s manageable. And when you’re in person, all that rawness comes out. And then I saw Look Up – and I thought to myself – “That’s right! How many serendipitous interactions am I missing out on because I’m too busy scrolling through old pictures? Am I looking at these pictures because I don’t want to sit and look like I don’t have anyone to talk to? It’s ridiculous. I finally switched my phone when I had a friend who needed a smartphone for her trip overseas – it was timed perfectly.

What changes did you experience during your time with a simpler phone?

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For the first week and a half I was legitimately depressed—which was crazy. It was timed with a rough spiritual and emotional time. But I also wasn’t receiving text messages from a number of my close friends because they were going to my old phone. Because texting on a flip phone is horrendous, I didn’t text as much. So if communication wasn’t necessary I didn’t do it. I noticed how many people are on their phones every spare second they have. Everywhere I was—in line, at home, at the climbing wall—I saw people getting out their phones. I thought to myself, “I’m right here! Talk to me! Don’t look at Facebook, talk to me and the people that are in the room!” Since I had a flip phone I couldn’t get it out and be distracted with them. I’ve become much more conscious of the kind of message that it sends when you take out your phone when someone isn’t talking.

What did you learn about yourself during this time?

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It made me conscious of who I was good at communicating with and who I communicate with out of convenience. It noticed my true friendships—those I actually have a connection with—from those who I communicate with because I’m passing time. I also quickly realized that my smartphone is background noise – if you’re constantly tearing your attention away from what you’re doing or talking about, your brain doesn’t stay focused. So when I had a flip phone I had to be very honest with what I was feeling. Because when you’re sad, upset, or annoyed it’s a simple as “Oh, let me go distract myself with all this new information.” And then you don’t actually process things. I did more processing about my own spirituality and faith in the two months without a phone than I did in two years.

And then you went back to an iPhone – what prompted the switch?

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From the start, I hadn’t planned on my flip phone being a permanent solution. It was intended to be a ‘pause period’ while I reevaluated. I really missed the convenience of a smartphone. For example, I missed Instagram not because of the social aspect, but because it’s like my journal. I do a lot a thinking and processing via Instagram when I post a photo and caption to go with it. I’ve heard that when you notice something that you’re grateful for, you should name it and consciously recognize it, otherwise it just floats by. And so that’s what Instagram was for me. Not only that, but my old phone was ugly, clunky, and constantly restarting itself. I decided that it was better to deal with the potential consequences of having a smartphone than the inconvenience of an old phone.

When you started using a smartphone again, what did you notice?

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It’s a habit-forming device. I’ve had it for a week or two and I’ve already noticed that I’ll pick it up and open something without noticing. I have to consciously remind myself “Nothing significant has changed – it’s more important to be where you are right now.” It’s kind of disappointing how quickly that behavior resumes – and I’m not quite sure how to combat it.

 How does technology change our relationships with others?

It’s made us very used to getting information about a person without asking them—aka the Facebook creep. This can be helpful, because you can tell a lot about a person by what they post if they post regularly. But it also makes us pretty bad at having conversation because we’re used to having time to process and edit. I think it makes us afraid of the mess—afraid to be vulnerable. When you post something you have time to make it neat and tidy, but humans aren’t neat and tidy at all.
I’ve also noticed that the more connected we get electronically, the more spontaneous human interaction seems like pursuing someone. For example, I was a lot more outgoing with a flip phone. I would just start conversations with people, and a lot of times that was misinterpreted. I got asked out a lot more in the couple months without a smartphone than I did before, simply because I was chatting. So it makes us less real. We have our projected self and our actual self, and the distance between those is a lot further than it should be.

As a culture, it seems like we’ve reached a point of no return with our phones. Now that there’s no turning back, what do we do?

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It has to be an individual conscious choice to limit yourself. For example, I’ve heard from a lot of people that using Google Maps limits your experience and exploration of a new place. So when I drove to Idaho with my best friend last summer we decided that unless we got completely and hopelessly lost (or if we were trying to find a Starbucks), that we would only use paper maps. During the trip we would have never discovered some of the places that we did if we’d just followed Google Maps. We still had our phones, but we chose to have that experience.
I’ve heard of people using iPhone’s Do Not Disturb feature to turn off notifications at scheduled times—for example an hour before bed or until after breakfast. I think it takes one person doing that and telling other people, slowly spreading the idea that we can connect differently—often in much better ways that with our phones.
Finally, we can’t be afraid to call our friends out. If you’re all sitting at the dinner table and three people are texting, say to them “Hey, you’re important to me, our friendship is important to me, can we put our phones in the middle of the table for an hour and just communicate?” It takes just one person being intentional and mindful—and not from a place of judgment—but from a place of “I want to listen to you better, can we consciously connect?” I always notice, when someone it talking to me and their phone buzzes, they just keep looking at me. It’s such a simple thing, but when that happens I hear, “You’re loved, you’re important, and I’m listening to you.”