Vintage black and white photo of a man holding a box behind a bank vault door
(Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty)
Healthy Habits

I Locked My Phone in a Box to Fight My Screen Addiction

After years of infinite scrolling, it was time for a drastic intervention

Vintage black and white photo of a man holding a box behind a bank vault door
Ellen O'Brien

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I stepped out of yoga class and spotted an iMessage notification: Is your phone in the box? With 30 minutes of freedom to spare, I fired off a string of texts in response.

Like many Gen Zers, I’m usually glued to my phone. Part of my job involves managing social media accounts, so much of that time is devoted to editing and uploading content. But I also do my share of distracted scrolling, unnecessary texting, and self-esteem depleting via dating apps. My New Year’s resolution for 2022 was to stop taking my phone to the bathroom. (I failed after a week.)

During a recent late-night TikTok binge, I came across a video of a girl locking her phone in a box, looking to disconnect for a few hours. That’s what I needed to manage my addiction, I realized. So for a full month, I tried sealing my device away in a latched container during the workday. I fantasized about becoming more focused and productive.

During the first week, that’s what happened. I really was less distracted: instead of reaching for my phone when I hit writer’s block or wrapped a long meeting, I walked around my apartment or cleaned for a few minutes, returning to my laptop with a surge of energy and new ideas.

In the second week, I experienced a shift. I spent one afternoon certain that a text from the guy I was seeing would be waiting for me when I unlocked the box, only to find nothing when the time came. On another occasion, I expected a group chat to be full of weekend options, only to discover that no one had responded to my early-morning inquiry. After anticipating these messages for hours, their nonexistence felt like an even greater letdown.

As an extrovert who often works alone in my apartment, I didn’t realize how much I’d relied on check-ins from friends to get through the day. In the past, these notifications seemed inconsequential. Without them my days felt quieter.

Did I miss the dopamine hit from a notification or the connection it entailed? After years of relying on my phone, I struggled to decipher whether my need for constant communication was healthy.

It’s hard to say whether I missed the dopamine hit from a notification or the genuine connection it entailed. After years of relying on my phone, I struggled to decipher whether my need for constant communication was healthy. But recent research suggests some benefit to digital check-ins. A study published in the Journal of Psychology and Social Personality last year found that people appreciated an unexpected call or text much more than the sender anticipated. By the fourth week, it wasn’t the string of group-chat gossip or Instagram scrolling that I missed; it was the personal contact: my best friend asking about my day, or my mom sending me an old photo. They made me feel loved, even just for a second.

Locking my phone in a box didn’t make me a digital-detox convert, but it did help me spend my screen time more deliberately. When I was on my phone after the experiment, I had a new appreciation for the midday voice mail from my grandmother or the all-caps text from my college housemate.

The experiment changed my behavior in another unexpected way: I now make more of an effort to reach out to my friends throughout the day. I’ll continue to use the box occasionally, like when I need to meet a critical deadline. But when my phone is nearby, I’ll look forward to those moments of connection—they really help me rationalize all that mindless scrolling.

From January/February 2023 Lead Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty