Rafflesian Times: The Phone Fast Challenge

By Alex Tan (16S03B), Louisa Li (16A13A), Adelyn Koh (16S06H), Lim Lex-xis (16S03M) and Gladys Lim (16S03K)

The following is a preview from the upcoming Issue #6 of the Rafflesian Times, slated for release this Friday.

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A useful means of chatting and connecting with friends. A convenient platform facilitating work-related discussions and conversations. A trustworthy source of world news and road directions. A refuge from awkward social situations. A mobile phone might be several, or all, of these things to you, if you, like the vast majority of the student population, happen to possess one. No matter what, the fact that we depend on our phones with a near-total reliance is a matter that leaves little doubt. Eager for a challenge, the five of us decided to embark upon a five-day phone fast, in which we were allowed to use our phones for no more than two half-hour periods daily. How masochistic, you might think, but the phone fast induced us to ask ourselves certain questions about the way we spend our time and the role of technology in our lives. The insights proffered were certainly well worth the brief pain.

Conceivably, most of us felt a sense of frustration from being deprived of our mobile phones. Checking our phones had become such a habitual, and even subconscious, action and we performed it so routinely from day to day that their absence was acutely sensed when the phone fast was imposed. We could not mindlessly whip out our phones and casually glance at the messages we had received, or noncommittally scroll through our social media feeds.

Instead, we were impelled to spend our time more mindfully and productively. Many of us reported increased efficiency and concentration, as our commitment to the fast allowed us to ignore phone notifications with a much greater ease than usual. As a result, Adelyn was able to pack in two undistracted hours of organic chemistry revision.

Some of us were annoyed because our peculiar habits of phone usage were denied. Gladys yearned to tell her friends about ‘all the weird things’ that had happened to her over the course of a typical day, as she was accustomed to doing. Louisa the workaholic had to constantly resist the temptation to efficiently reply to all her work-related messages. That we felt a strong sense of chagrin, and even pain, was testament to the integrality and importance of mobile phones in our daily lives. Adelyn echoed this sentiment, comparing the experience to that of a ‘drug addict experiencing withdrawal symptoms’.

Of course, one of the catches of this challenge was that whilst we were compelled to shake off every urge to use our phone, everyone else around us was not. Our friends continued to reply to WhatsApp messages, open Instagram, and take selfies in their normal, habitually frequent fashion. Against this background of incessant phone usage, we felt our inability to use our phones all the more glaringly.

These exasperated rants might lead you think that the phone fast was a tortuous ordeal. But it was, on the whole, far from that. Louisa found it ‘surprisingly easy and liberating’, while Alex thought the experiment ‘not an incredibly drastic change’. The difficulty of the fast also hinged on certain particularities, such as the day of the week and the time of the day. Over the weekend, avoiding contact with our phones was aided by strategies such as stowing the device away in a drawer, or simply leaving it out of plain sight. For Lex-xis, the real problem arose during the school week, as pressing deadlines and heavy workloads rendered it much more exigent and urgent to reply to messages promptly.

Indubitably, the phone fast entailed no small amount of self-discipline and tenacity, but the benefits reaped were of commensurate proportion. Besides helping us to eliminate a potent source of distractions, the fast also taught us the value of forward-planning. Alex planned his bus routes to the smallest, most intricate detail as he was prohibited from referring to the Google Maps app on his phone. To coordinate her group work, Gladys drafted an entire message on her computer before typing it into WhatsApp during the allocated half-hour block of phone usage. In short, we were forced to seriously consider how we should spend our two precious half-hour periods with our phones. The phone fast became, in effect, a sort of simulated worst-case scenario, in which we had to prepare for all contingencies. We were therefore keenly alerted to the possibility that our own mobile phones might end up failing us one day, and that we should be able to react with prudence and responsiveness.

This enhanced ability to respond to situations was no less evident in our day-to-day social interactions. Our conversations with our friends became more intentional as we invested more effort and heart in deepening our relationships with the people around us. In fact, many friends accommodatingly stowed away their phones upon hearing about our fast, and demonstrated a reciprocal interest in having better, more mindful conversations.

Yet we were, at certain junctures, ambivalent about the challenge. Being uncertain about how definitively it could produce a change in our habits and subconscious behaviours, some of us thought that the conversations were contrived. The concerted effort required was much more evident when our friends were disengaged, continuing to be on their phones as we endeavoured to talk to them. Moreover, we were prone to treating our half-hour periods of phone usage with excessive importance. On some days, we focused too intensely on our phone screens during those periods at the expense of the surrounding people and action. This seemed, ironically, to run contrary to the phone fast’s original purpose.

In sum, it would not be an overstatement to say that the phone fast was a fulfilling experience, encouraging us to resist the temptation of consistently engaging with social media. Having gone through it, a pervasive sentiment of cleansing and relinquishment was among us. In stripping away the inessential and giving up what we had no need of, we increasingly normalised the act of being away from our phones and, more importantly, from constant contact and social engagement. The school’s recent mobile phone policy, although very relevant and necessary, would mean nothing if we did not find the self-discipline within ourselves to reduce our mobile phone usage, and turn our attentions more wholly to worthier pursuits. We began a journey of learning to be more content in our separate realms of solitude, to better carve out impregnable spaces of silence and alone time. Today, we are still learning that.

Pick up a copy of RT6 for the full scoop, including a Phone Fast Log from Dean of Character and Citizenship Education Ms Melissa Lim!

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