Most people I know who are 26 years of age and under are simultaneously addicted to and terrified of their phones. The fact that WhatsApp tells us when someone is online is like a violent assault on the senses. What is this, MSN?
I feel this deeply. When my phone rings I’m immediately filled with panic. Who is it? A scam? The doctor? Must be serious. What could they possibly want from me? My friends never call me for a chat; a handful of my long-distance friends will FaceTime me maybe, at a push, quarterly. Like so many of us, I work, live, socialise and organise my life on my phone – yet notifications scare the shit out of me. So I used to spend most of my time pretty anxious, overwhelmed and irritated.
Is it any wonder when the world is a mess? With at least 160 mass shootings already in America this year, the creeping doom of the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis refusing to subside, it is no surprise that we have a desire to shut out the overwhelm. On a micro level, how can you even think about responding to Hinge when you’re at work, trying to concentrate? Or the constant stream of dog and baby content in the extended family WhatsApp chat? Let alone the 3,000 marketing emails you signed up for and are too lazy to unsubscribe from.
Yet it’s never out of my hand. I’m the person who leaves their phone in portaloos at festivals and takes it with me to the bathroom so I can play music while I shower (because God forbid I am left alone with my thoughts). I took 10 days off social media at Christmas last year and made a bigger deal out of it than my birthday. The only way I could escape my phone was by making plans, cooking or going for a walk – anything that meant my hands weren’t free to scroll. I found that if I stayed in I’d be constantly distracted, unable to watch a film or dedicate my time to anything meaningful. The feeling of always being contactable started to really freak me out, yet I couldn’t break away from it.
Until, that is, the best tech feature of all time came into my life. Do Not Disturb – DND, if you will – was introduced by Apple back in 2012. I’ve been using it sporadically for a couple of years, but for the past six months it’s been on permanently. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, my phone does not notify me of texts, social media updates, WhatsApps, depressing news pushes, marketing emails or any of the other pop-ups that plague my tiny, beloved screen. DND basically turns my phone into a burner phone: a pay-as-you-go mobile that is often cheap, untraceable and disposable, and used to maintain anonymity.
Years ago, I actually had a burner phone. This was not to do anything illicit or remotely spicy. I was complaining that I couldn’t work without the little vibrating mirror of hell distracting me so my friend lent me an old Nokia brick. If someone wanted to contact me urgently, they could (and rarely did). The fun notifications collected in silence and I would go through them at the end of the day. Do Not Disturb is the same: not only does it provide me with the agency to ignore messages until I have the headspace to reply but I can also do other things, like read a book without interruption (vintage, so adorable).
Similarly, when I’m with friends and family, I want to be present. Not replying to Jack from Hinge or watching Madeline Argy’s TikToks. While both have varying degrees of importance and are arguably worthwhile, I think by now we’ve collectively decided that being on your phone in company is just rude. I don’t want to feel like an iPad kid playing Candy Crush while I sip Coke in the pub. I want to feel like a sophisticated and refined adult who talks about art and taxes. Truthfully, I often end up talking about Madeline Argy’s TikToks and showing my friends Jack’s Hinge profile, but what can I say? I’m a work in progress.
When I tell people I’m in a permanent state of DND, they look stricken with horror. "But what happens if someone needs to get hold of you urgently? Have you ever missed anything important?" Did our parents or grandparents ever miss anything pre-digital age? Maybe, but isn’t that just life? My friends know to call me twice as the first call goes to answerphone immediately but a second call will ring through. In case of emergency I recently changed the settings so my family’s notifications bypass the DND (something I immediately regretted due to the four family WhatsApp groups I am in).
With the world and everyone in it in a constant state of overload, we need to take back agency over our time and our lives. Being contactable only when I say so is the perfect amount of nonchalance. A bonus is that iMessage informs people who text me that I’m on DND, which makes me feel like an unavailable rockstar. It provides something we all dream of: a permanent out of office. It’s what memes are made of, baby.
I’ve decided that I can’t be so addicted to my phone that I ever actually get off it, just on the off-chance someone really needs me. Not to jinx myself but the things that people expect a quick reply to are rarely urgent. The house isn’t burning down, you just want to know if I’m in for brunch on Sunday. And if the house is burning down, respectfully, just call me twice.