Two bowls of steaming mussels were put before a mother and grown-up daughter, and a plate of bruschetta for dad. As they tucked into their starters, a table away from us, mobile phones were set aside, but only briefly. Before the last mollusc had been washed down with white wine the women had resumed scrolling. Their companion did not look concerned at sitting ignored. Now and again, something on screen was shared with him with a laugh; later, when he had demolished his tuna steak, he followed suit, eyes down as if in a bingo hall.

Not so long ago I would have thought this a descent into barbarism: why go out for dinner and give more attention to a device than your family? Yet the trio seemed perfectly contented. They left the restaurant in good spirits, having enjoyed an evening together without missing a single tweet, match report or TikTok post. How Dickensian my husband and I must have seemed, with our phones in our pockets on mute.      

Is it the height of rudeness constantly to be checking a screen when you’re socialising? Once I would have said yes; now I’m not so sure. This is a new age, where society, and information, come in different guises, many in digital form. A judge I know will tap away while we’re chatting to provide the answer to whatever word, place, name or detail we couldn’t recall a moment earlier. Unearthing the facts is his business, and his phone is stuck to his hip like a sheriff’s Colt 45.  

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What I find unsettling is not the ubiquity of scrolling, but the magnetic, all-consuming fascination the online realm, when held in our palms, seems to exert. On average in the UK it’s said we check our phones every 12 minutes between waking and going to sleep. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist or addiction therapist to suspect that this twitchy habit, which has escalated exponentially in recent years, is having a negative impact.

Read more: Can we ditch Dickens, or are my expectations too great?

A recent survey by the think tank Onward, titled Burnt Out Britain, shows that compared with 50 years ago, Britons feel far more busy, exhausted and overwhelmed. Even though we are sleeping on average half an hour longer each night and working similar hours to our 1970s counterparts (women slightly longer), we are struggling to cope. As a result, hobbies and community volunteering are suffering, because people just don’t have the energy to get involved.

Needless to say, the researchers blame our ceaseless use of phones. With us turning to social media even while watching TV or meeting friends or when we’re in bed, this umbilical cord is blurring the lines between work and personal life. Its stranglehold means our brains simply cannot find a moment’s peace.

We’ve all been there, when the office owl fires off emails at 11 at night, setting your mind whirring just when you should be winding down to sleep. Or interrupting the weekend, an act that serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that employees must be on work alert every day of the week. Only marginally less aggravating are the early risers who are up with the dawn chorus, their messages requiring a response before you’ve had the first gulp of caffeine.  

Nor is it only the demands of the workplace that create a sense of overload. Unless you were born before JFK’s assassination, hardly anybody rings family or friends without arranging a time when it’s convenient. Days are thus timetabled as never before, punctuated with windows for personal catch-ups which can start to feel like part of the working schedule rather than a spontaneous pleasure. Sometimes, in a bid to get a blast of fresh air into my day, I try to combine both things. Yet, as the report says, “Interruptions may seem small but they add up. You have an hour for exercise but this is broken up by taking a call. This hour now feels more compressed.”

Another factor is the alarming gravity of what we are constantly reading about online: war, earthquakes, murders, strikes, political scandals, rising inflation, looming environmental disaster. Thanks in part to our conditioning during Covid, we are in a constant state of emergency. It’s not just the boss who craves our full-time attention but the news headlines too.

Little wonder, then, that the country is suffering a pandemic of mental exhaustion, with 88% of workers, between 2020 and 2022, complaining of burnout. In an unfortunate phrase that brings the Brexit campaign painfully to mind, the researchers recommend that people require help to ‘take back control’. And they’re right. We do urgently need to set boundaries, to free ourselves of our digital shackles.

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The novelist Ian McEwan recently bemoaned the loss of solitude now that screens have us in thrall. Gone are those precious moments when you are free to do absolutely nothing – waiting for a train, say – and actually have space to think and daydream. Only those of a certain vintage can recall what it’s like not to be a digital slave.  For younger generations, being without a phone is like missing a limb, an almost disabling absence.

Whether such reliance is healthy is not the point. This is the world we now live in. The issue is how to loosen the boa-constrictor grip of our devices without feeling we’ve gone completely backwoods and off-grid.

Is this even possible? For our sanity, it has to be. Recalibrating the balance between using our phones and being under their control can be achieved. It’s a question, surely, of recognising the extent to which they dominate our lives, and putting limits on that: at the very least, having an hour or two in waking hours when they are turned off. Absolutely essential is putting them away an hour before bedtime, and getting an alarm clock rather than keeping them within temptation’s reach.

Yet, if we are truly to curb their influence, perhaps the biggest question we need to answer is, what would we be missing if we slipped the leash for a while? Do we really need to be constantly on call or have we just got into the habit?

The answer will depend on lifestyle and circumstances. What won’t change, though, is the sense of liberation when you step out of its clutches and discover there’s another world out there beyond your phone.