What You Could Do If You Put Down Your Phone

The world is back. Leave your phone behind

More than three-quarters of Americans own a smartphone. Those 253 million Americans spend $1,380 and 1,460 hours on their smartphone and other mobile devices every year. That’s 91 waking days; cumulatively, that adds up to 370 billion waking American hours and $349 billion. With the pandemic receding and the real world coming back into focuss here’s what we could do instead.


In most western states, that $1,380 you spent on your phone could buy half an acre of land. In the right conditions, that half acre could easily accommodate 150 trees. A single tree sequesters 48 pounds of carbon a year. It takes about 30 minutes for an amateur forester to plant a single tree. If every American smartphone owner used that time and money to plant half an acre of trees, we would sequester about 886 million tons of carbon a year, enough to offset more than 10% of the country’s annual emissions. If you don’t want to do the planting yourself the National Forest Foundation notes that the organization could meet all of its National Forest’s planting goals with 60 cents per American smartphone user


A recent study of romantic relationships among college students in the Journal of Popular Media Psychology found that “smartphone dependency is significantly linked to relationship uncertainty,” and that “partners’ perceived smartphone dependency predicts less relationship satisfaction.” According to another recent study, more than 29 percent of Americans would rather give up sex for three months than give up their smartphone for a single week.

Now flip that around: If you gave up your device for a year, you would have time to make love about 16,000 times (assuming you’re like most Americans, and your lovemaking sessions last an average of 5.4 minutes, not counting foreplay).

If all that sex doesn’t bring you and your partner together, you could contract for about four hours of couples therapy. Not enough time? The renowned couples therapist Esther Perel has managed to fix some couples’ problems in three


Currently the American political system undercounts the votes of the majority of Americans either through gerrymandering or through the unfair distribution of senate seats and electoral votes. But this system can be changed particularly if we introduce a program for voter reform at a grassroots level. As David Gold, an attorney with the organization Democratism noted, “quitting devices would give citizens enough time and money to visit their local and state representatives three times a week for a year and cover the cost of the trip in gas or mass transit to lobby for reform.”


Every year 10 million tons of plastic waste flows into seas of the world, mostly from countries in Asia that lack adequate waste management technology. According George Leonard at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy if Americans applied all the money they allocate to smartphones to solving plastic pollution “there would be enough money available to pay for the necessary improvements in waste management in Asian countries for 70 years.” Meanwhile if the time Americans spent on smartphones were applied to ocean clean up at a rate of 5 pounds of plastic garbage per person per hour, according to Leonard “the volunteer effort could clean up the amount of plastic that flows into the global ocean 118 times over.”


The average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 43 hours and 13 minutes to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time Volumes 1 to 7. With 1460 hours repurposed from device usage, a reader would get through Proust’s chef d’oeuvre more than 30 times. With the $1380 in device-free savings the ambitious reader could then embark for the weekend to Illier-Combray, the setting of Proust’s first madeleine-soaked memories.


According to the Mayo Clinic, swimming, walking or running for 30 minutes a day can lower your blood pressure from 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury per day, as much or more than some blood pressure medication. Yes, you could keep your phone with you while you exercise but who needs the stress. And if you’d rather not exercise, blood pressure medication costs about $900 per year.


The average American spends $14,000 per decade on a smartphone. That’s $70,000 over the course of an average working life. Invested in a conservative mutual fund with an annual rate of return of 4 percent, that would yield over $1.3 million in retirement savings. (The current median household retirement savings is $5,000.)


Last year the globe-circling Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont smashed the world circumnavigation record by riding around the world’s land mass in 79 days. He pedaled 16 hours a day for a total of 1,264 hours — or just under a year’s worth of smartphone usage. The average human couldn’t match Mr. Beaumont’s feat, but the money and time saved by ditching their phone would afford them a lot of time with a personal trainer.


Smartphone usage is highest among teens and people in their early 20s. And it’s at this crucial time when virtuosity in a musical instrument can be attained. At current rates of device usage, most young people will burn through the famous “10,000 hours” Malcolm Gladwell associated with becoming an “elite pianist” over the course of the next decade. How many virtuosos will we lose in the years ahead if device use among young people continues to grow apace?


According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, it takes approximately 700 hours to become proficient in a foreign language, using English as a baseline. With the time you spend staring into your device, you could learn two.


A recent study found that children between 7 and 24 months old experienced higher levels of distress and were less likely to investigate their surroundings when their parents were on their mobile devices. Secure attachment begins in infancy when children take visual cues of attachment from their parents’ gaze. Every moment you look at your infant instead of your phone is an investment in the future.

A version of this essay appeared in the New York Times January 1, 2020

More ideas for quitting your device at goodbyephone.com

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet: Fifty Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint paulgreenberg.org

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