The constant stress of the battery meter

Imagine if at the beginning of the day, a clock started counting down the time until some fundamental part of you stopped functioning. The clock was in your field of vision most of the day, even though it almost never actually got to zero.

I’m vastly exaggerating the stakes, but that’s very much the type of stress I feel every time I click on my phone and see the battery percentage at the top right corner, like the slowest lit fuse in the world.

This information is designed to be helpful. It’s not. Instead, it’s enough to send us into tiny hysterias throughout the day: Do I need to top off my battery before heading out for the night? Have I used too much this morning?

For me — and I’m sure I’m not alone — the stress kicks in before my battery ever gets low. It’s all in seeing the warning, not truly knowing what it means. At least when my battery actually starts to fade, I know what I need to do.

Turning off the battery percentage is one of the first things I do when I get a new phone. But recently, after I updated my Pixel to Android Pie, I’ve found that questionably precise counter to be unavoidable: the new OS displays the battery percentage on my phone’s lock screen no matter what. And I keep finding myself glancing back at it — was that a 1 or a 7? — concerned that I’m missing some critical data that I absolutely need to know.

Over the past decade, researchers have started looking into something known as “nomophobia” that’s supposed to describe the concern of becoming disconnected from your phone. In May, The Wall Street Journal reported finding 15 papers published on the subject in the past four years.

Some of that research has measured subjects’ physical response to phone cues — the Journal describes one that monitored heart rate after hearing a text message tone. Many of other studies have come from self-reported surveys, often of college students. It should come as no surprise that today’s college students, who have highly irregular schedules and grew up with smartphones, are often concerned about becoming disconnected.

Even to me, as a person who finds something to stress about in a battery gauge, this doesn’t seem like a major problem. Being without a phone means being without human contact, help lines, and entertainment. Yes, we’ve lived without on-demand access to these things in the past — but that’s the past. They’re normal now. Naturally, we’d worry about not having them, just as we’d worry about the phone or TV going out a decade ago, or simply how we still dislike missing out on a social event. (Nomophobia and FOMO often seem to go hand in hand.)

Most experts don’t think nomophobia is a crucial problem, but it speaks to a kind of anxiety. Like this year’s trend to make our time using phones “well spent,” phone makers will continually be pressed to address this problem, be it with extended battery life or ways of stay connected even once most of our phone stops functioning. To an extent, they already are, with features like wireless charging that make it easier to add a few extra percentage points to your phone while waiting at Starbucks, or with LTE-connected smartwatches (another thing to keep charging) that can keep going without your phone.

An entire industry of case and battery companies have also sprung forth to save us from this concern. There are wildly different estimates, but research firms see these companies booming, growing into businesses that represent anywhere from $10 billion to more than $40 billion in revenue in the next several years. There is, without question, a demand for keeping our phones alive.

The anxiety has roots in reality; my phone only ever seems to die when I need it most — navigating a new city, trying to hail a cab, having an emotional breakdown in New Jersey. For me, the concern is less my phone’s death, and more the unknown as to what these numbers even mean: we need to know the state of our phone’s battery, but we need to be told it in a more useful way that lets us know how to act, instead of just stressing and guessing.

Fortunately, our phones are starting to get smarter about handling their battery. In Android Pie, the OS will send you a notification when your battery gets low, not just telling you what percentage you have left, but telling you exactly what time of day it expects the battery to last until. Apple hasn’t made iOS quite that proactive, but it has removed the exact battery percentage from beside the icon on most screens of the iPhone X. And both operating systems now offer a low-power mode, which dramatically lowers the stakes of actually crossing below whatever battery threshold seems too low to you.

These are encouraging steps. But I hope for the day when I don’t have to see that icon at all. Knowing our battery percentage should be like knowing our processor speed: unless it’s about to crash or catch fire, I don’t want to see it.

As for the stress, I can’t fault anyone for it. It’s easy to dismiss it as a generation of kids unable to detach themselves from a new toy; but really, we’re seeing people who want to stay in touch to friends and family. Smartphones are a link to your community — no wonder people don’t want to feel disconnected.