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Youth Perspective: What Are Phone Diets (and Why Don’t They Work)?

By Susi Delgado / December 2, 2019
Chicago Ideas Youth Perspectives is a new content series, presented in partnership with the Susan Crown Exchange, that amplifies the voices of our youth ambassadors and gives them a platform to share their ideas. 

What are most teenagers doing when they should be doing their homework, helping around the community, or even paying attention in class? Most teenagers (myself included) feel like we can’t stop checking our phones every second or that we are unable to even put them down for more than five minutes. Some teenagers have gotten to a point where they actually feel addicted and seek out ways to stop. Even I have tried curbing my phone use only to find that it’s harder than I thought it would be.

First I tried something simple: uninstalling apps. One day I decided to uninstall Instagram. I only lasted three days. I chose to start with Instagram because I often used that app to not do homework (and have an excuse). Once I raised my grades just a little, I went back to Insta and things went back to where they started. 

So, my friend tried muting my apps since he knew I would only install them back, but that also didn’t work. See, what had happened was that after a while of not getting any notifications I started getting this horrible feeling of not being loved. No more messages from Insta, no more YouTube Cdrama (a style of YouTube video) recommendations, no more V LIVE (a Korean streaming platform) from BTS (a Kpop band), no more game updates. I felt so lonely and in need of their attention (creepy right?). I even tried telling people that contacted me a lot to stop. That also didn’t work because I enjoyed those conversations online and felt that if I stopped they would eventually forget me. 

Mine was just one take on a common solution to excessive digital use: the “phone diet.” There are teenagers that approach the phone diet differently, but the way I did it was only using my phone for necessary tasks. I tried it this way, because I didn’t want to go without my phone completely since it is sometimes used for a good reason, like communication. Instead, I wanted to use it to be more active in the real world. In my opinion, phones give us tools for necessary things, like texts to about plans or important questions. You can use your phone for Google or your calendar or to explore YouTube for educational videos. Instead of quitting these things, I stopped using social media, games, and V LIVE.  

I tried to go a full two weeks without those things, but lasted only three days before I got frustrated and got my social media accounts back. Keep in mind: I have set this goal a total of three times. Each time I could only survive three days before I broke. The first day I was extremely determined, and I was positive I would at least make it one week. Anytime I got a notification I would not look at what it said, I would smile and swipe it aside right away. If it was a text or iMessage and it was school related or from a family member, I would respond. So the first day went well, and that success helped a lot. 

The second day was a bit more complicated. In the morning, the first thing I do is check what everyone else is doing in Insta. So waking up to just stare at the wall and think to myself that I was too lazy kind of made me miss checking my Insta. Through the day I noticed I actually started reading the notifications just to have some idea of what was going on. I kept telling myself that I was not cheating as long as I didn’t open my social media apps. By the third day, instead of just looking at the notifications I actually answered messages without getting in the app (which was obviously cheating). So, I finally gave up. 

So why couldn’t I last even one whole week? After some thought, I’ve discovered a few reasons that this “phone diet” didn’t really work. For one, the need to know what was going on was overwhelming. During those three days I kept thinking about all the drama I was missing which made me anxious. Secondly, the need to stay connected was real. I felt like I had to respond to my friend’s messages even if I was busy, as if me making this decision may make them distant. Lastly, I didn’t feel like I was active in the world. I tried going out to the yard and play some soccer, basketball, or volleyball, but got bored after 20 minutes. I tried reading, but I would only end up thinking about what my friends were posting about online.

In the end I believe that it is truly sad that many teenagers have had to rely on these phone diets in the first place. The way I feel when I do not get notifications—the emptiness—is truly sad and truly weird. I think phone diets are not efficient, but it really just depends on the person. If a person is determined but not really into the idea then it just won’t work. But if getting away from your phone is something you truly want, then you’re in the clear.