Fifty percent of teens say they “feel addicted” to mobile devices, according to a recent Common Sense Media poll. Photo by Michael Ventura

Olivia Gonzalez got her first iPhone during her freshman year of high school. Since then, it has been the newly minted senior’s primary portal to the online world and all of its distractions. On Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, she has compulsively checked who was doing what and where. She has snapped selfies. And she’s texted friends near and far. During the summer before her junior year at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, she came to wonder if her phone was nothing more than a source of misery. “I felt anxious and irritable on it,” she admits. With dread, she’d go onto any of her social media apps and wonder: What will I see that I wasn’t invited to today?

As that summer drew to a close and the demands of a heavy academic workload loomed, Olivia made a conscious effort to cut back on her phone usage and dramatically reduce her time on social media. “I was using apps when I didn’t really want to, when I knew I was getting nothing out of it,” says Olivia, 17, who lives in Silver Spring. It was information overload, especially since the phone bombarded her with texts, news alerts and social media notifications.

In the spring of her junior year, she signed up for the “digital downtime” project offered to Blair students who participate in one of the school’s magnet programs. The project encourages them to limit screen time—phones, computers and all other digital technology—for one week. Each student must write a contract specifying the restrictions that they will impose on themselves. The goal is to unplug as much as possible, staying away from social media and frivolous Internet searching. But before they do, they must keep a log of their screen time, both the hours and specific uses. Olivia thought she’d be in good shape going into it since she’d already whittled down her phone use. But in tracking her time, she learned that she was still on her phone for more than two hours a day. 

Determined to rein herself in further, Olivia drafted a contract allowing herself to check email only once a day and to use technology only as needed for homework. Some classmates allowed for check-ins with their parents or listening to music. But Olivia opted out of all that, and even coaxed her mother to cut back on her use of technology for the duration of the project, which started on a Wednesday. The first three days went smoothly enough. “I felt I had all this time because I had two hours of my day added back,” Olivia says. “It was relaxing not to be constantly accessible.” She went to bed earlier. She focused more on her homework. Olivia, who was editor-in-chief of her school paper, even managed to keep up with current events after turning off news alerts from different media operations. Reading the newspaper felt less chaotic; she felt like she could control how much she wanted to know. And that “missing out” feeling faded. 

But then came the weekend, and suddenly Olivia was at a loss for a way to fill her time outside of school. She couldn’t watch a movie or log in to social media. Making plans with friends got complicated. More than once, friends showed up at her doorstep to inform her of a change in plans. She took long walks and napped a lot. But she was at loose ends without her phone. “I still had positive feelings about the project, but I hadn’t planned ahead for what I was going to do with all that extra time,” Olivia says. “My generation as a whole is not used to being alone and having time to spare.”