How being on my phone more than ever has strengthened my friendships

According to my iPhone, my average screen time is six hours and 30 minutes per day. Last week, my weekly screen time averaged out to about 51 hours, which is basically like watching all six season of Downton Abbey back to back (a feat I have previously tried and failed to accomplish because I needed to sleep, eat, and get some sunlight). Thankfully, a 2016 Nielsen study found adults spent an average of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day using electronic devices, which makes my daily average look like small potatoes, right?

But let’s call a spade a spade: it’s still a lot of time of to be on a dumb phone. I know this. Multiple researchers have pointed out that our smartphones are ruining our posture (my massage therapist can attest to this), our eyesight (hello, new eyeglass prescription), and can affect our mental health, leading to incidences of depression and anxiety. Yes, FOMO and paid influencers and #relationshipgoals are totally bad for the soul, and they create a toxic wasteland of comparison. However, in my case, my phone—and my apparent phone addiction—has been my lifeline.

See, I moved to a little place called Prince Edward Island (PEI) on the east coast of Canada at the end of 2017. I decided I was moving in September, and within eight weeks, my red Beetle was stacked with my belongings as I drove a wailing black cat 1,300 km (that’s just over 800 miles) across the country from Toronto. I didn’t know anyone in PEI. The move was symbolic of a new start, which meant joining new clubs and activities, and awkwardly starting new friendships that were really just code for acquaintanceships because here’s the thing about being an adult over a certain age (ahem, 35): it’s hard AF to make new friends.

I don’t know what it is about us “grownups,” but we sure are set in our ways when it comes to expanding our networks. While I tried to make connections in my new town by attending social events and activities and joining, like, three gyms, if life has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t force social interactions without coming across as a desperate fool, or risk falling in with the wrong crowd (which is, yes, still a thing in your mid-30s). My mother didn’t raise a fool, so instead I took my lumps and resigned to the fact that my new IRL friendships would require some patience and faith. In the meantime, to ward off pangs of loneliness (which could kill you faster than smoking or obesity, by the way), I turned to my already-made friends via the best social connector of all time: the smartphone.

Having lived in a few cities (Florence, New York, Toronto) before my stint in Charlottetown, PEI, I have a number of friends across Canada and the U.S., and globally, in different time zones, all with different phone plans, which requires a certain type of juggling with my social media apps.

Each morning, on the way to the gym, I’ll listen to a voice note from my friend Lauren in Portland, Oregon via WhatsApp. They usually vary in length from 16 to 20 minutes, sometimes 30 minutes depending on what we’ve got going on in our personal and professional lives. If you’ve never tried using the voice note option, I highly recommend it, especially for those close friends with whom you want to share everything but, due to time and/or distance, you just can’t seem to connect via FaceTime.

Lauren and I talk out a lot of shit out in those memos. We clarify a lot of things for ourselves, and for each other, just by communicating out loud rather than typing. Less misinterpretation of a text happens this way, but most importantly, I really feel more a part of her daily life. Even though we have thousands of miles between us, and a four-hour time difference, our decade-long friendship has grown even stronger because of our daily voice notes. It certainly helps that both Lauren and I are freelancers, so we have the time to chat during the day, but I typically listen and share voice notes while I’m out in the car or running errands, and it makes me feel like I have a friend right there with me as I go about my business.

When I’m not leaving voice notes for Lauren, I’m exchanging tons of iMessages with my friend Elena in Providence, Rhode Island. While Elena and I have known each other since 2012, since I moved to PEI, we’ve really ramped up the friendship. In fact, she’s pretty much the first person I talk to/text in the morning, but we tend to chat the most during her lunchtime, which usually coincides with mine. Having someone to chat with over lunch is such a gift for a freelance writer. And though Elena and I don’t talk on the phone or leave voice notes, our shorthand on iMessage is pretty much top-rate, and we seldom misread a text. If you can find a friend who will send you close to 50 messages a day without annoying you (iPhone tells me I receive close to 200 text messages a day, and I’m pretty confident 50% of those are hers), then you’ve found a good egg.

Then, of course, there are the other friends with whom I message off and on throughout the day or week on other social apps. My friend Mariya from Toronto and I solely communicate via Instagram messenger, sending cute animal pics and videos back and forth, and it’s honestly one of the biggest highlights of my day.

Stu, another Toronto-based friend, and I communicate frequently but strictly through Facebook Messenger, and while we were buddies before I left for PEI, our friendship has deepened through our online messaging. We’ve been able to support each other through various hardships and breakups, no in-person connection required; we knew we had one another if needed, all with a simple “ping!”

And that’s the special thing about social media. It’s convenient, and instant. While there’s a lot to be said about the health issues and about being so instantly accessible, for me, that’s been the biggest blessing. No plane ticket is required to feel connected to the people who love you. Heck, you don’t even need to rack up text messaging charges, expensive long distance calls, or data overages if you know which apps to use.

“As someone that has lived on four continents over the past 10 years, it certainly helps me keep in touch with a lot of people, albeit at a more surface level,” Vicki Yaffe, a life coach and host of the F*CK Anxiety & Get Sh*t Done, podcast told me. “There are former roommates or colleagues that I am able to keep up to date with, be it engagements, pregnancies, new jobs, or moving to new places. Social media has helped me meet up with high school friends I otherwise wouldn’t have kept in touch with in all corners of the world.”

Without my iPhone, which is essentially the life force behind my friendships, I would undoubtedly feel isolated and alone, which would increase my risk for depression and anxiety—the exact things our screen time is thought to increase.

However, as Yaffe pointed out, like anything in life, it is not social media but how you use it that determines whether it has a net positive or net negative effect on your life.

“Spending hours staring at a screen swiping to meet someone offline also has a limit and  is often counterproductive,” said Yaffe. “If you are someone that has 12 apps downloaded, and spend three hours on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook every day, I would recommend challenging yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Yaffe added that the brain “wants to keep you safe—staying inside and watching Netflix is safer than joining an event where you don’t know people, 100% of the time. Recognize where you are doing that. It is all about decisions ahead of time and it is something I coach a lot of people on.”

I realize boundaries for screen time are crucial. While being on my phone has helped me feel less alone and has helped re-establish and strengthen the connections I have, I know I mustn’t spend all of my free hours on my phone. There is a life to be led in front of me.  As Yaffe put it, “Why did I move across country if I am spending all my time indoors on the phone to friends from home? Connection is great, but there really has to be variety. Staying connected to the old while creating connections in the present.”

Staying in constant contact online with my friends has helped give me the confidence, and the hope, that I will be able to create more of those connections in real life in my new home.

Which is why I am trying to decrease my screen time to, maybe, the equivalent of one less Downton Abbey episode per week.

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