Mobile phone addiction? It’s time to take back control

Illustration of giant hand in 'stop' gesture coming out of a smartphone screen

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“Raising awareness of one’s own smartphone use can be the first step in the right direction of decreasing smartphone use,” says Dr Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University. “Often, individuals are not aware of the frequency and extent of their smartphone use.”

Dr Sarita Robinson, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says: “It is a little like getting on the scales after Christmas and being confronted with how much weight you have really put on – when adding up your phone use over a week, the amount of time you are wasting can come as a big surprise.”

Seeing this data is just a first step, however. As Burke says: “Having the insight is only so good. What are you going to do about the insight? How are you going to make a change?”

 

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Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

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In an effort to break my smartphone addiction, I’ve joined a small group of people turning their phone screens to grayscale — cutting out the colors and going with a range of shades from white to black. First popularized by the tech ethicist Tristan Harris, the goal of sticking to shades of gray is to make the glittering screen a little less stimulating.

I’ve been gray for a couple days, and it’s remarkable how well it has eased my twitchy phone checking, suggesting that one way to break phone attachment may be to, essentially, make my phone a little worse. We’re simple animals, excited by bright colors, it turns out.

…“You don’t buy black-and-white cereal boxes, you buy the really stimulating colored one, and these apps have developed really cool tiles, cool shapes, cool colors, all designed to stimulate you,” Ms. McKelvey said. “But there’s a vibrant world out there, and my phone shouldn’t be it.”

When habit-forming products become addictive

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I recently observed a couple seated together at the corner table of a popular Colombian restaurant in New York. They weren’t on a date. I knew that because they were not even present for each other. Instead they were each gazing into their phones. Their devices threw a cold glow onto their faces, which didn’t look particularly happy or unhappy. Somewhere in the middle, I’d say.

Later that week I went to a movie at the AMC Village 7 on 3rd Avenue, where two things struck me: The amazing reclining seats, and the fact that AMC Theaters now feels it necessary to include “don’t post” along with the usual “don’t text or talk” part of the theater preroll. It reminded me of when, in one of the more emotionally heavy and somber exhibits of the 9/11 museum, two girls near me snapped selfies. Twice, because one of them didn’t like how she looked in the first one. I don’t know if it was because not being alive in 2001 makes the whole thing abstract history, or because the tribal validation Snapchat provides is too irresistible to delay.

Nir Eyal’s book, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, tells us some of the causes of these behaviors. In it, Eyal makes a point to separate “habit-forming” from “addicting.” The clearest difference I grokked from Eyal’s writing is this: If the product manipulates us into a compulsion that is said to be good for the our wellbeing, that’s called habit-forming. If it’s bad for our wellbeing, then it’s called an addiction.

Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed

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There may be plenty of analogue reasons for it. “A number of things are pretty unique to young people today. They were born around when the Columbine shooting happened, they were kids for 9/11, they were kids during one of the worst recessions in modern history,” says Nicole Green, the executive director of Counselling and Psychological Services at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has seen demand for her office’s services from college undergraduates surge.

A big new study suggests a different explanation for teenage melancholy—the many hours young people spend staring at their phone screens. That might be having serious effects, especially on young girls, according to the study’s author, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of  “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy”.

By scrutinising national surveys, with data collected from over 500,000 American teenagers, Ms Twenge found that adolescents who spent more time on new media—using Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram on a smartphone, for instance—were more likely to agree with remarks such as: “The future often seems hopeless,” or “I feel that I can’t do anything right.” Those who used screens less, spending time playing sport, doing homework, or socialising with friends in person, were less likely to report mental troubles.

What happened when I made my students turn off their phones

<em>Photo Dick Thomas Johnson</em>

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Initially, 37 per cent of my 30 students – undergraduates at Boston University – were angry or annoyed about this experiment. While my previous policy leveraged public humiliation, it didn’t dictate what they did with their phones in class. For some, putting their phones into cases seemed akin to caging a pet, a clear denial of freedom. Yet by the end of the semester, only 14 per cent felt negatively about the pouches; 11 per cent were ‘pleasantly surprised’; 7 per cent were ‘relieved’; and 21 per cent felt ‘fine’ about them.

Workarounds emerged immediately. Students slid their phones into the pouches without locking them, but because they still couldn’t use their phones in class, this became a quiet act of rebellion, rather than a demonstration of defiance. Some of them used their computers, on which we often search databases and complete in-class exercises, to text or access social media. I’m not comfortable policing students’ computer screens – if they really want to use class time to access what YONDR denies them, that’s their choice. The pouches did stop students from going to the bathroom to use their phones. In previous semesters, some students would leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes and take their phones with them. With phones pouched, there were very few bathroom trips.

 

Teens ‘rebelling against social media’, say headteachers

Girls give up their phones at Beneden for three days

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Almost two-thirds of schoolchildren would not mind if social media had never been invented, research suggests.

A survey of almost 5,000 students, mainly aged between 14 and 16, found a growing backlash against social media – with even more pupils (71%) admitting to taking digital detoxes to escape it.

Benenden, an independent girls boarding school in Kent, told BBC News that its pupils set up a three-day “phone-fast”.

Some girls found fears of being offline were replaced by feelings of relief.

The Useless Agony of Going Offline

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In his book, Levy, who also teaches tech and mindfulness courses at the University of Washington’s Information School, writes that most people who attempt this sort of experiment successfully complete it, and that they often “feel good about it.” He offers examples of individuals who noted that a day unplugged represented “one of the best days I had had in a long time,” and who “welcomed the silence and the relief of pressure.”

…Good on those folks, sincerely. But I hated spending three days without computers. And I feel no deep shame about this. I don’t think my disdain for the logged-off existence was due primarily to the fact that I’m addicted to social media, or cannot live without my phone, or have morphed into the prototypical “Distracted Man.”

Levy writes that when we choose to cast aside “the devices and apps we use regularly, it should hardly be surprising if we miss them, even long for them at times.” But what I felt was more general. I didn’t miss my smartphone, or the goofy watch I own that vibrates when I receive an e-mail and lets me send text messages by speaking into it. I didn’t miss Twitter’s little heart-shaped icons. I missed learning about new things.

During the world’s longest weekend, it became clear to me that, when I’m using my phone or surfing the Internet, I am almost always learning something. I’m using Google to find out what types of plastic bottles are the worst for human health, or determining the home town of a certain actor, or looking up some N.B.A. player’s college stats. I’m trying to find out how many people work at Tesla, or getting the address for that brunch place, or checking out how in the world Sacramento came to be the capital of California.

What I’m learning may not always be of great social value, but I’m at least gaining some new knowledge—by using devices in ways that, sure, also distract me from maintaining a singular focus on any one thing.