Time for a WeTox? We went one week without a smartphone

And emerged with more money and fewer friends

It’s Monday mornIng, and I’ve just published my own WeChat obituary on Moments, bidding farewell to my friends, colleagues and horde of one-time acquaintances. I inform them that, as I enter my instant-messaging afterlife, I will still be reachable via SMS or the digital ouija board of email. It’s time to say goodbye, and my smartphone is entombed in my editor’s drawer.

In all honesty, I hate the thing anyway; you hate yours too, admit it. I hate being locked in an endless tryst with a five-inch electronic slab but, on the other hand, I kind of worship it. My precious. Across the country, an estimated 717 million others adore theirs too.

According to the stattos at eMarketer, us adults in China spend an average of two hours and 26 minutes a day glued to their device, and if there’s one thing we’re probably doing, it’s using the one app to rule them all – WeChat.

963 million active monthly users can’t be wrong: Tencent’s ever-evolving messaging platform has, since its launch in 2011, become an almost ubiquitous companion to daily life in China. For the week ahead, though, I’ll be deprived of not only WeChat, but the entire supporting cast of app-based pleasures. Can a fruitful urban existence be lived without it all?

Existing as a social human being


Interactions instantly change in the absence of WeChat. First of all, there are no stickers on my new ride – the sliding Samsung C3050, from 2009 – and the word 'emoji' doesn't even exist in its dictionary.

It’s more about my new level of interaction though. According to a Tencent report released in April, the app’s average user has 194 contacts and sends 74 messages a day, but it’s VIP stuff for me now, with a phonebook reduced to a cast of 14. It’s first come, first served to the SMS party: very few are coming.

In many ways, it’s blissful. I’m getting some exceptional me time, but by the end of the week, pangs of FOMO are hitting; the best-laid plans of mice and men are all made on WeChat now, and, indeed, I find I’ve been added to several new plan- scheming group chats when I do reintegrate. Missed opportunities.

WeChat, WhatsApp et al have brought a marvellous casualness to communication, and that’s something that should be enjoyed really. Sometimes you don’t just wanna hang with your VIPs, so it’s great to be back making occasional, flakey plans with merry mid-range pengyous.

Navigating the city


Mobike? How about... Nobike? My slick brick’s 0.3 megapixel camera won’t be processing QR codes any time soon, and it becomes clear by Monday evening that getting around just got a lot less convenient. A Didi ride is a no-go, and taxis are at a premium, so I’m soon back on my first bus in months. Kind of novel, until it turns out to be the wrong one. Time (and the actual bus I need) waits for no one, and I lose a precious hour correcting my error.

Another day, I’m out in uncharted Greater Chaoyang, and lose my way without a trusty map app. It’s time to get back into some good old North Star navigation, looking at public maps, printing maps, and even asking strangers for directions – remember that?

Turns out, smartphones, or more these apps that rely on them, have been an absolute marvel for urban living. I don’t miss the 6pm struggle session for share bikes around the office, but I’ve spent so much time over this week getting lost, waiting for buses, cabs or just accepting defeat and walking. It’s a pleasure to have them back. Fifty points for smartphones.

Paying the bills


With a reported total of around 36 trillion RMB changing digital hands in 2016, China is by far the world’s leading market for mobile payments. No nation has taken to it better, and in its recent report, Tencent found that 44.5 percent of surveyed WeChat users claimed to largely 'not carry cash'. What’s more, Beijing was recently revealed to be the nation’s leading cashless society – one from which I have chosen to become an outcast.

I thought cash was just the slower option; it turns out that in some cases it’s not an option at all. One chilly Wednesday evening, despairing and hungry in a generic food hall, a particularly forward-thinking dumpling joint turns me away, informing me that physical money is no longer an accepted method of payment.

Elsewhere, 'Do you have change for a hundred?', is a common question to friends that is invariably met with sighs and eye rolls. My now-archaic means of repayment makes bill splitting laborious. If there’s any positives to be had, I’m drinking a sh*tload more water, regularly splashing out 2RMB a bottle to break up my hundies. Every cloud has a well-hydrated lining.

It’s not all that bad though. With cash in hand, I feel I’m managing purse strings better; seeing a 100RMB note become a 50,then a 20and so on is sad. In QR-happy 2017, it’s a feeling you become detached from, and although it was only a week back on the hard stuff, I’m feeling far more aware of how much I frivol away now.

Doing business

Without hesitation, the single biggest obstacle I found in my life without a smartphone and, more specifically, WeChat, is navigating the professional sphere: the world is on WeChat, and WeChat, for better or worse, makes the Chinese working world go round. It’s high-octane business diesel.

Tencent’s recent report found that 83 percent of surveyed users rely on WeChat for their work. Quite how the other 17 percent gets anything done, I don’t know, but that’s where I found myself and hello darkness, my old friend, it sucked. Switching off for a week meant cutting myself off from the vast majority of a network who are normally never more than a tap away.

When sat at my desk, I flirt with all sorts of communication tools to try and IM my way back into their lives, but nothing fills the WeChasm in mine. I realise there’s a terrific-yet-intrusive beauty to the app; you basically have people where you want and need them, almost cornered.

On the other side of the coin though, it’s difficult to switch off from work when that professional-personal line is blurred, and people can snag you at all hours. After a week of slow progress, however, I’m put behind in work and left picking up the pieces to catch up over the next. Weighing it all up, it’s a significant stress relief to be back on the app.

The verdict

In a recent article for Observer, American self-help guru Mark Manson pulled no punches with the title 'Smartphones Are The New Cigarettes'. If that’s the case, then after a week spent trying to kick the habit, vaping with my Samsung slider, I’m now back on a pack a day.

And it feels good, I guess? Sure, I feel guilty for being a slave to the sweet nectar of modern minor convenience, but the benefit to daily life of services such as Didi, share bike apps and WeChat is remarkable. It just speeds everything up, and maybe we should cherish that.

Last month, a 21-year-old woman from Shaanxi was reported to have gone blind after a 24-hour smartphone gaming bender, while a 14-year-old girl in Shandong was recently said to have permanently damaged her spine from excessive neck craning. When this sort of stuff is happening, it’s probably time to step back and think about it all, even if you yourself aren’t blind... yet.

I’m sure you are already aware of it. It was only a week off for me, so I can in no way claim to have ascended to some supreme plane of human consciousness, but there is something immensely refreshing about any time off. It only took a few days, but I feel like I’m checking this darn thing a little less, doing less habitual social media scrolling and whatnot since. We’ll see how long it lasts.

Read more

  • 4 out of 5 stars