S02 E07

I'm Never Using My Smartphone Again

After a container of smoothie accidentally dumped all over her purse, effectively destroying her cellphone, Ashley Weber called her service provider and asked to transfer her number to a landline -- which was not a request the company seemed to receive often. Or ever. In fact, the line seemed to go dead for a minute.

“(Then the man) said, ‘Just to get this straight, you want to transfer your cellphone line, one you've had for many years, to a landline?’” Weber recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘You know, I'm going to have to put you on hold for a while, because nobody has ever asked us that question.’”

The bad news was, switching the number over to a landline wouldn’t be possible, in Weber’s case. But the good news is, that smoothie spill really changed everything for her. Weber said she’d been feeling conscious of her tech addiction, but she didn’t know what to do about it. Once her phone had been destroyed, she saw it as a sign.

“I said, you know what? I'm not getting a new phone. I'm not going to get anything,” Weber said.

It was a telling experiment. In this week’s episode of “Mismatch,” you’ll hear what happened when she told her friends about her new number, encouraging people to call and explaining that her email address would remain the same. Some friends rolled with the punches. Others, she never heard from again.

“It ended up serving as this really efficient way to highlight who the people were in my life that were constantly showing up,” Weber said. “(The ones) who were interested in getting to know me on a deeper level, and not keep everything on the surface. I loved that.”

There was no more last-minute canceling. And carrying a book or a newspaper forced her to read more, which she had wanted to do -- which were both positive things, of course. On the scarier side of the equation, Weber, who works in a high school, really started to notice the effects of people constantly having a cellphone in hand. For starters, she became drawn to the eerie silence between classes. It wasn’t what she remembered from her own high school experience in the ‘90s.

“They were turning into zombies,” Weber said of the students. “They were looking at their phones as they walked down the hallway, and when they arrived in my classroom, they sat there looking at their phone until class started. Nobody was talking to each other anymore.”

So for her classroom, Weber set up a shoe organizer -- something that looped over the top of a closet door, and with individual pouches meant for your shoes. Weber put each student's name on one of the slots and the teens were required to drop their phones into their pouch upon entering the room.

“(But) one kid carried on as if the cellphone he surrendered was still in his hand,” Weber said. “He could only communicate with me when his thumbs were moving. He would come in, and I was teaching French at the time, and I would say, ‘Bonjour!’ He would respond to me, but his hands would instinctively rise up to his chest, and he would move his thumbs as though he was texting in response. … With no cellphone in hand.”

The Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit organization, is studying all of this: our collective addiction to tech, that is. People with the group are calling it a “digital attention crisis.” They say the race to monetize our attention is eroding our mental health, social relationships and even our democracy, with the biggest impact affecting our kids.

“We're going through the largest social experiment in human history, right?” said Max Stossel, the head of content and storytelling for the group. “This technology, social media, has affected just about every facet of our lives. … I think on average, we pick up our phones about 150 times a day.”

Stossel said he’s most concerned about the approximate 2 billion people (which is the number of users on Facebook), being pushed to the extreme of their ideas, as he phrased it.

“Whatever is in your mind, systems (are) algorithmically figuring out what you’re most sort of likely to fall into and click on -- and the unintended consequence of that, (meaning) pushing 2 billion people toward less understanding. (And) less shared acknowledgement of the truth and more toward division and extremism.”