Phone phobia was a term originally coined for those, like me, who were scared of making or taking telephone calls. Beware the dreaded unknown number! Back in my admin assistant days, when I was working for my dad’s psychotherapy business, I would need a pep talk, a trip to the bathroom, and a spare piece of paper to anxiously doodle on before I could make a call. When I eventually did make the call, I’d always start with the people who were most likely to not answer, allowing me to leave an awkward, yet comfortably one-sided, voice message.
Now that phones have become more and more integrated with everyday life, our understanding of phone phobia has changed. Phone phobia has now expanded to include discomfort with and/ or avoidance of mobile notifications – be it WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, emails, LinkedIn, even the dreaded Duolingo! Put simply, repeated and consistent notifications lead to a growing pressure to respond and, eventually, digital fatigue- something that we’ve chatted about on this blog before. If you aren’t familiar with the term, digital fatigue is:
‘a state of mental exhaustion brought on by the excessive use of digital devices'”
The world’s responses to Covid has had an unquestionable impact on what phone phobia means and how it impacts us. Communicating relied heavily on technology throughout multiple lockdowns and many key moments – graduations, baby’s first steps, work meetings, teaching, funerals- were all experienced through a screen. Keeping up with friends and family depended on messaging and, because we weren’t doing much else, these messages would fly frequently from person to person, like a real conversation. Now that restrictions are loosening in some countries, one impact of lockdown is really starting to rear its head.
Many of us are avoiding our notifications.
I do this a lot, often without realising it. I’ll leave messages unread for hours, days, weeks… even months. Sometimes I see the message and reply in my head, sometimes I’ll accidentally open it and get distracted with a work call or a throwing-up cat, other times I’ll just be completely overwhelmed by the growing notifications, and by the time I’ve responded to work clients, I’ll be wiped out. It’s recently resulted in me losing a close friend due to my inconsistency and it’s a topic I ended up chatting about at our Galentine’s Afternoon Tea.
As my friend, and hostess with the mostest Alice, introduced the topic I was surprised to hear that I wasn’t alone in my message avoidance. This surprise grew and grew as each and every one of the people at the table shared their stories and experiences of digital fatigue and message avoidance. We shared some of the very emotional reactions we’d received due to delayed responses, how these reactions made us feel, and why these messages were being skipped in the first place.
Work was one of the main reasons we talked about. The switch to virtual working meant that the lines between work and leisure are often crossed. Without a work phone, we text colleagues, clients, friends, and family from the same device and receive notifications on the same device too (I cannot explain the number of times I’ve panicked thinking that I’ve butt-dialed one of my student’s parents).
How can you switch off from work? You can’t filter out the work/ play messages meaning that you’ll skim over the notifications, leading inevitably, to some being missed. And even the lucky ones who have a work phone are still being impacted by this cell-response sluggishness.
COVID lockdowns are dwindling, yet many people still expect that same availability and frequency of replies. Texts still equal conversations for many. We’re expected to respond no matter what time, regardless of what’s going on / how we’re feeling. The main reason for that is that everyone has a different lifestyle and schedule, meaning that it’s really difficult to understand when someone is free and really easy to assume that someone is being rude rather than busy.
Unfortunately, this means that you’re feeling that pressure to respond when you first wake up, if you’re at work, in the bath, at the gym, out shopping, mid-meditation, during an in-person conversation… and any other time you get that buzz in your pocket. This can slowly but surely impact your mental health and other relationships with you never having ‘time off’ from communication.
With this building pressure, it’s completely understandable that you hit a threshold. You might be perfectly on it with messages for an hour or two before being totally burnt out. You might open a message with every intention to reply before another life event distracts you. It’s important to remember though that the other person doesn’t know what’s going on on your end unless you tell them.
So what can we do? How do we forgive the heinous act of ignorance that is phone phobia?
We start by shifting the narrative.
Pressure from the phone can impact mental health, work performance and relationships in a lot of ways. The constant bombardment or anxiety about incoming messages can lead to distraction and lack of focus on the present. That said, messaging is one of the main ways we can keep in touch with people we really care about, so what’s the middle ground?
Phone phobia or message avoidance is unforgivable because there is nothing to forgive. Time is not something that we can demand from other people, thought it is an important part of the relationship.
Communicate your boundaries
It’s important to be clear about where we stand, or want to so tell people what they can expect from you. You can establish your boundary with phrases like:
Great to hear from you!
+ Just a heads up, my replies can be pretty slow/ I’m trying to reduce my screen time/ I won’t be replying between X-time and Y-time
+ I’ll try my best to reply when I can, I just don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you!/ It’d be better to catch up in person/over call/video chat. When are you next free?/ If there’s ever an emergency or you just need to chat with me urgently -call my number
As with any boundary we try to put in place, shifting expectations can be uncomfortable. What was once acceptable isn’t anymore and the shift can be very difficult for people to initially adjust to. Be sure to communicate your boundary consistently and calmly, being open with your reasons for the change, until it starts to set in and if it doesn’t, consider why this person is demanding so much of your time.
Your time is yours. You don’t need to apologise or make excuses for how you spend it. If you have an Instagram story to post, post it- even with a sea of unanswered messages in that inbox! You wouldn’t avoid opening Spotify for the same reason, right?
Remember that message avoidance goes both ways. Just as you would expect someone to respect your boundaries, be understanding with other people when they do the same.
Be mindful about how you spend your time
Check in with your digital well-being and see how much time you’re spending on the phone; log how often you drop a digital conversation; and when you’re having a conversation, actually have the conversation! Don’t be messaging while doing bicep curls in the gym. Being mindful will help you to be more aware of that impending digital burnout, which in turn allows you to prevent it or reduce its impact.
Schedule in no-phone time
Ideally, before you go to bed and/or the hour after waking up. Don’t start or end your day with bombardment and influence from other people. Spend that time with yourself, reflect on the day and what you want(ed) to achieve. Set your phone to Do Not Disturb, save your emergency contacts to put your mind at ease, and take a break from communication. I can guarantee that when you come back, you’ll be much more invested.
Mix up your communication methods
So far, you’ve made people clear of your boundaries, you’re spending your time mindfully and you’ve pencilled in no-phone blocks throughout your day. It’s not all doom and gloom though- digital communication is amazing and, for many, essential. We can enjoy it a little more, and therefore be more motivated to do it, by exploring our variety of options. I’d recommend mixing up methods of communication to stop things from feeling stale. Leave voice notes, write letters, arrange video chats… whatever options you can think of to communicate! This will help you to feel excited about getting back to loved ones and it’ll save you from thumb cramps!
Save conversations for face-to-face
This is my main goal going forward – to avoid having conversations over message. The occasional check in is fair enough but I’m going to focus on using my messages to simply arrange in-person catch-ups. These catch-ups will, inevitably, less frequent than a message reply, but they’ll also be much more invested, aware, and focused on the other person. More memories can be made this way instead of text paragraphs building up in my inbox. If you don’t have a lot of spare time, then meet for lunch, arrange to do a sport or exercise class together- that way you’re ticking off your to-do list in a more memorable way.
Many of us gain, and give, a lot more face-to-face instead of digitally – we learned that from the difficulty of virtual learning/working/therapies. Using messages as a tool to organise, with the majority of communication actually being face-to-face gives quality over quantity.
What’s the longest you’ve left a message before replying? No judgment here!