Overuse Runs Deep and It’s Meant to
In 2012, Harvard Business Professor, Leslie Perlow released “Sleeping With Your Smartphone”. A look at the Boston Consulting Group’s struggle with smartphone addiction and the results of letting employees unplug. Of the 1600 managers and professionals she worked with,
- 56% checked their phone within an hour of going to sleep.
- 51% checked continuously during vacations.
- 70% looked at their phone within an hour of waking up.
- 44% said they would experience a great deal of anxiety if they lost their phone and couldn’t replace it for the week.
These statistics are the habits of professional adults and older millennials. A generation who grew up alongside smartphones, but can remember a time without them. According to the 2017 mobile results by the Pew Research center, 92% of adults aged 18-29 have a smartphone.
The prominence of technology in young adult and teenage life is alarming. As Tristan Harris, founder of TimeWellSpent puts it, “never before in history have basically 50 mostly men, mostly 20-35, mostly white engineer designer types, had control of what a billion people think and do, when they wake up in the morning and turn their phone over.” These engineers and designers work hard to maximize every moment we spend in their app. They’re paid to get us to scroll past ads, consume content, and come back for more. Because of this, social media giants review practices and new research to tighten their grip on attention.
Reinforcing their behavior to promote passive consumption comes straight from the top. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix recently said, “Netflix biggest competitor is sleep”. Not competition from HBO, Amazon Video, or YouTube, but an innate human need. There’s enough room in the media industry for multiple successful corporations. The most difficult part of growth is the limited time each individual has to consume content. Netflix, and other media giants, can’t do anything to mitigate your need for sleep. But, they can make content more appealing so you make poor choices.
A Change in Behavior
Logging into social media provides satisfaction derived from an altered mood and triggered by feelings of joy. Psychologists call this variable ratio schedule. It’s identical to how slot machines and gambling become addictive. It’s impossible to tell when we’ll get reactions to our tweets, photo’s, or status updates. So, we keep coming back, hoping for a couple comments or likes to give us affirmation.
This behavior alone isn’t unhealthy. Interacting with friends and family is one of the positive aspects of social media. We’re exposed to different viewpoints, new opinions, and interests we didn’t know we had.
When we spend time with our partners, have lunch with friends, or need to focus at work, the tug of smartphones is a real distraction. Quick cans of your phone add up. If its too frequent you end up out of the loop, conversation breaks down, and you’ll upset someone you care about. Especially if your habit of checking the phone coincides with a friend unpacking their stressful day.
Unfortunately, social media is the perfect habit forming loop. We need a cue, our notifications. A simple routine, opening an app. And a reward, the responses to our post, a tag, or a mention. These are all enabled by some craving, distraction, boredom, or lack of focus. This loop is what makes social media so appetizing and so hard to distance ourselves from.
Concerned with the impact of smartphone use on teenagers and young adults the Royal Society for Public Health, conducted a study of 1500 14-24 year olds. This subset of individuals is often referred to as “digital natives”. Young adults who’ve never lived in a world without cable internet.
The report, social media and young people’s mental health, highlights heavy social media users, those who get around two hours a day. They’re more likely to suffer from social anxiety, depression, poor body confidence, lack of sleep, and a heightened fear of missing out. But, there is some good news. The same group noted feelings of emotional support and community building, access to health experts, self-expression, and maintaining relationships.
It’s possible the lack of education around smart phone use is the monumental barrier to change. It’s common to see toddlers and young children watch videos on their parents devices. Without any interaction or context these videos provide little to no education opportunities. Because we grew up outside of their influence it’s easier to see the impacts of smartphones. Digital natives will never have that opportunity. They need some other way to understand the effects of always being plugged in.
Phone Addiction on the Brain
Notifications inhibit our ability to focus on a single task. They’re intrusive in active engagement as the need to address them builds up over time. Even hearing the chime or buzz on your phone is enough to set off the Ovsiankina effect. Which states a task stays in working memory while it goes unaddressed. Suddenly your phones gives you a new goal, acknowledging a notification. Some part of your brain wants to pay attention and respond. It’s a constant distraction.
Forget multitasking, very few of us can do it, roughly 2% of the population. The brain is capable of rapidly switching between tasks, making us feel as though we’re multitasking. But, this ability is only useful for short bursts of immediate task activation. Trying to write a couple hundred words while checking your phone will result in failure. As a result, you’ll need to revisit each topic multiple times whereas focusing on one and then the other would have net better results.
Our brain has to make a cognitive sacrifice when switching tasks. Accomplishing multiple projects in the same time period doesn’t make you a multitasker. It makes you the person dedicated to inefficiency.
Even having our phone in the open, on silent, is enough to decrease cognitive capacity. Professor Ward at the University of Texas at Austin had participants take a series of tests measuring cognitive capacity. Individuals were instructed to leave their phones on the desk, placed in a bag, or left in another room.
Participants with their phones in another room drastically outperformed the group with their phones in view. And marginally outperformed the group that had their phones tucked away. The strain your brain is put under trying to ignore your phone is enough to cause cognitive decline. Notifications amplify this effect, but aren’t necessary for intrusive thoughts. The mere presence of your smartphone limits cognitive ability.
Technology does a great deal to impinge on our focus. There used to be time devoid of outside interaction. We didn’t have access to an endless supply of information and entertainment. In these moments individuals focused on their side projects or hobbies. Now, we have to carve that time out.
In an interview with Forbes, Daniel Goleman outlines three types of focus; Inner, Outer, and Other. Smartphone addiction dismantles inner focus. Our ability to self-manage and prioritize daily life. Instead we direct our inner focus towards social media and other apps. One of my coworkers calls this, “the scroll”. Our habit of devouring content from Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, or any other feed.
Smartphone Addiction Solutions
People send notifications. Machines send distractions.
Go into your settings and stop notifications from any app that doesn’t have direct human contact on the other end. Apps are designed to suck you back in. This means no games, YouTube, Facebook, or Reddit.
Go into your SETTINGS > NOTIFICATIONS and turn off any notification that doesn’t come from person. Keep apps like Messenger, Messages, and GroupMe.
Tools in the front. Distractions in the back.
Put your todolist and functional apps up front. Anything that helps you stay organized or productive belongs on your homepage. Everything else belongs in the apps section. You should put as much distance between yourself and distractions as possible. Every tap counts.
Charge outside of your room
The blue light from phones affects melatonin and makes you feel awake later in the evening. I don’t follow this rule exactly. Instead, I put my phone on the other side of the room. I still like to use it as my alarm clock, but now I have to get up to turn it off. This serves to get me moving and helps me avoid checking my phone first thing in the morning.
Apps that manage time
I track and manage the time I spend online with two different apps. RescueTime measures my time on different applications on my phone and computer. It helps me track my productivity and highlights where I spent the most time getting distracted.
The other is Forest. It provides a simple overlay for my phone reminding me to focus any time I unlock my phone. I turn this on at work and home. It’s main premise is reminding you that you were trying to avoid looking at your phone. Nothing flashy.
Solutions for More Focus
Curate content down to what’s important.
When learning a new skill it’s important to keep it in your field of vision. This includes your digital space. Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube let you limit the content in front of your eyes. Take the time to sort through what’s essential and what isn’t. It’s a minor step to getting yourself sorted.
If you’re learning how to draw make sure you follow other artists on Twitter and Instagram for inspiration. Take the time to engage with them and turn distracting apps into productive ones. The same goes for any video sharing app. There are endless tutorials available through YouTube. Make sure you’re following your favorite teachers and limit your exposure to distracting content.
Drop Apps you check at home.
If the first thing you do when you get home is check Facebook, Quora, or your personal email, then uninstall the apps on your phone. Unless you have a real reason like, fiscal or familial responsibilities, you have no reason to keep getting caught up in the scroll. Remove the apps from your phone and wait until you get home.
You’ll need something else to do.
If you follow just a couple of these you’re going to have a lot of free time. You need something to take over that time or you’re going to fall right back into old habits. Boredom is an absolute barrier to getting rid of bad habits. Bring a book with you, read long-form articles, or go for a walk. Any quick adjustment that will distract you from your phone will help replace bad habits.