The secret is out: Tech designers and creators are trying to “hijack people’s minds.”

So says Tristan Harris, an ex-Google executive who left the tech giant to devote himself to anti-tech addiction education and lobbying. He’s not the only tech insider who has expressed concern over the addictive nature of technology — former Facebook president Sean Parker and Apple CEO Tim Cook have both admitted in interviews that they worry about the effect of social media and smartphones on children’s brains.

Critics point out that many apps mimic slot machines in key ways: The chance of getting a “like,” emoji, or retweet functions like the occasional payout, keeping you on your device, waiting for more. Snapchat’s “streak” feature, for instance, keeps a tally of how many days you’ve messaged back and forth, encouraging users not to break the streak. What’s more, research has shown that our phones may be making us sadder — increased time on smartphones has been linked to decreased focus, anxiety, a lack of empathy, depression, and suicide.

Still, we grip our phones tightly. A new book by Catherine Price, How to Break Up With Your Phone, offers practical advice on how to cure smartphone addiction. A freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Best American Science Writing, the New York Times, and Popular Science, Price urges users to keep the few features that offer us real value and block out the rest — not untethering entirely, but freeing up time to enrich our lives.

I spoke with Price about the topic; our conversation is below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese

Was there a tipping point when you realized the amount of time you were spending on your phone was becoming a problem?

Catherine Price

I had a baby, and I was feeding her. It was a darkened room, and it was this peaceful mother-daughter bonding moment, and I had a sudden out-of-body experience where I could see what was happening in the room. She was looking at me — and I was looking at my phone. It really crystallized something: This is not what I want my daughter’s first impression of human interaction to be, her mother looking at her phone. I was like, “Maybe I want to reevaluate this.”

Hope Reese

In your book, you focus on smartphones in particular — but all kinds of screen time, including browsing the web on a laptop or an iPad — have been the subject of criticism for the way in which they grab our attention. What makes smartphones different?

Catherine Price

People push back on the idea that there’s something particular about smartphones as problematic. They say that everyone freaks out about every piece of technology that’s ever come before, which is true. My favorite historical example is that people freaked out about kaleidoscopes in Victorian England. All these people were lamenting the fact that people were apparently walking down the street mesmerized by staring into their kaleidoscope — exactly the same way we look at our phones — and all these religious leaders were freaking out about it. Eventually, that passed. People got bored of kaleidoscopes.

But smartphones really aren’t like technologies that have come before. When you have the smartphone, you have the entire internet in your pocket in a device that’s been specifically designed to make you want to be on it.

Hope Reese

The Smartphone Compulsion Test, which you include in your book, asks questions like, “Do you wish you could be a little less involved with your cell or smartphone?” and, “Do you feel your use of your cell or smartphone decreases your productivity at times?” According to the test, I literally qualify for a psychiatric evaluation.

Catherine Price

David Greenfield, who runs the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, came up with that 15-question questionnaire … I can pretty much guarantee that anyone is going to qualify for a psychiatric evaluation.

Your first instinct is to say that this test is BS — this cannot be this dramatic, right? But just because something is accepted in society doesn’t mean it’s normal. If you were to walk down the street, and, instead of smartphones, all these people were actually shooting up drugs, you wouldn’t be like, “Yeah everyone’s doing it, I guess we’re fine.” You’d be like, “Oh, this, at the very least, is something that we should be thinking of talking about.” That’s what I found with this smartphone compulsion test — you’re going to score high enough to make it seem like you need an evaluation, and we shouldn’t actually brush that off.

Hope Reese

Where does the scientific community stand on this? Are there still mixed opinions?

Catherine Price

When we talk about the scientific research about smartphones’ effects on our brains, the tricky thing is smartphones are so new that a lot of this is still inconclusive. The iPhone was introduced in 2007, so this has been barely 10, 11 years. So you’re going to find debate in the scientific community.

There has been a lot more research on the effects of spending a lot of time on the internet or gaming on our brains. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains has great info on that. You do have to extrapolate a little bit from the Carr’s work on the internet to the smartphone stuff.

Our brains are naturally programmed to be easily distractible — which, in an evolutionary context, makes sense: The creatures most alert to the threats in their surroundings are the most likely to survive. Humans are unusual amongst animals in that we have the capacity to override this naturally distracted state in order to concentrate — on, say, reading a book, or solving a problem. Somewhat counterintuitively, our ability to focus depends on our ability to ignore everything else — to ignore, in other words, the countless sights, sounds, scents, and sensations that are bombarding our brains at all times.

That’s really hard for our brains to do. They’d much rather just flit around from one new thing to the next — which, of course, is what our phones and apps are specifically designed to encourage. So when you’re using your phone, you’re essentially “undoing” a lot of the hard work you’ve put in, over the course of your life, to cultivate your ability to sustain your focus.

Hope Reese

How are software developers specifically designing these tools to hook users?

Catherine Price

A lot of it has to do with dopamine, which is a chemical your brain releases when it encounters something it thinks you should remember or you become excited in some way. If I check my phone to check my email and there’s a new message, I’m going to get a little hit of dopamine. Interestingly, our brains like it even more when we don’t know when those rewards will occur.

In Instagram, for example, there’s an algorithm that determines when you are most likely to quit Instagram. Then it will deliver “likes”… a bunch of “likes” all at once. So you’ll see them, your brain will love it, and you won’t want to get off your phone.

We also really like it when we get a response to something we do. Like the “whoosh!” when we send a text message. The colors on the phone. We like shiny objects, which is why if you turn your phone on grayscale [make it black and white], it makes your phone less appealing. There are other addictive features, like pulling down on your tweets — it’s just like a slot machine. The action of pulling the lever to see what you’re gonna get, and the unpredictability of results. The feeds are designed to be endless.

Hope Reese

You call the phone a “Pandora’s box of emotions,” and some of your prompts in the book ask for check-ins about how picking up the phone makes us feel. What have you found?

Catherine Price

You never know what you’re gonna find. Sometimes it will be great, but sometimes it will be stressful. Often we reach for the phone out of a desire for the hit of dopamine. But that’s not the only emotional system at work. When you check your email and there’s an email from someone about an assignment you forgot to do, that will cause stress hormones to be released and will make your whole body feel differently. I find it useful, when I find myself craving my phone, to think: What’s the best thing I could find here? What’s the likelihood I’m going to find it? And what’s more likely to happen? Much more likely is that I’ll release stress hormones. You need to tune in to how your body feels.

We often think of our phones as giving us a reward, but we also reach for them because once you’re addicted, not checking your phone makes us anxious. You release cortisol and adrenaline because you’re worried about not checking [your] phone. So you have this double cycle of hormones — this desire to check, for the dopamine reward, and … this anxiety about not checking.

Hope Reese

You write that we achieve an “intensely focused state of distraction” through smartphone use. Can you explain?

Catherine Price

We’re not necessarily looking at our phone in long chunks of time. You’re looking at Twitter for, like, 20 seconds, then turning to Instagram. But at the same time, when you’re doing that, you’re not engaging in the world you’re living in. If a man in a gorilla suit walked past you, you probably wouldn’t see him. But that doesn’t mean you’re focusing on the phone — you’re flipping between things really quickly. You get better at scanning but not focusing on anything in depth.

Hope Reese

Smartphone use is prevalent across all ages, but it can have particularly dangerous consequences for children and teens, whose brains are still developing.

Catherine Price

What a lot of us don’t admit as parents is that we are also addicted to our phones, and we are modeling behavior. It’s totally unfair to ask our child to not use the phone if you are on the phone all the time. Ask your children to describe your relationship with your phone. It’s horrifying.

Parents can begin to approach a family relationship with our phones by talking about the phones, talk about how they can influence social interactions, and talk about the difference between experiences we want to have in real life and the ones we are having on our phone. Reconnect with what is important to us in real life. We are the adults. It’s our decision.

If you want to communicate with your kid if there’s an emergency, there are a lot of good alternatives to smartphones. There are landlines. There are smartwatches that you can call from and have GPS tracking. When you give a child a phone, ask yourself: What is my goal? Don’t start with the phone — start with your goal.

Hope Reese

How can we change the culture of phone use in social settings?

Catherine Price

One of the most powerful things is to start framing this issue differently. Not just “we have a problem.” That makes us think we need to cut back, which carries with it the implication that you’re denying yourself something pleasurable. It’s like going on a diet.

It’s more useful to switch the language around and realize that when you’re on your smartphone, you’re not paying attention to anything else in your life. Your life is what you pay attention to. When you are on your phone, your phone is your life. If you ask: The time I’m spending on my phone — what is that taking away from? And you start to think: When I’m on my phone, I’m not spending time with my friends in real life. I’m not talking to my kid. I’m not paying attention to my partner. I’m not reading a book. I’m not doing all these things I enjoy. Then your phone goes from a source of pleasure to a distraction. It’s a reward to yourself to reevaluate your relationship with your phone.

We’ve never taken a step back to take a look at what we want our relationship with our phone to be.

Hope Reese

Your book includes a 30-day plan to break away from your phone that involves daily steps like “delete social media apps” or “turn off notifications,” to help people disconnect from their smartphones. Was that time frame intentional?

Catherine Price

It was. You can do a lot of the plan in less than 30 days. Just by talking about the plan and considering it, you’ve already changed your relationship with your phone. We have just been so unconscious about it. But the 30-day plan was designed because it takes time to change a habit. And time to contemplate all these bigger questions that start to come up about what we actually care about, and what we want to spend time on. It’s not to do a quick fix by turning my phone to grayscale for two days — it’s more holistic.

Hope Reese

Digital “detoxes,” such as weekend retreats that involve completely disconnecting from tech, have been in vogue recently. What do you think of these other methods?

Catherine Price

There’s a difference between someone in their basement peeing into a soda bottle because they can’t stop playing World of Warcraft and the average person checking Instagram for two hours a day. If you have a full-on addiction, it’s a great thing to do. For the rest of us, it’s also great to take smaller steps.

At a dinner party, put out a basket with your phones. Commit to your experience. You’ll all feel twitchy at first. But in my experience, it doesn’t take long before people notice how it feels and want to get involved in what they’re doing. This is an addiction we can kick. When people do the 24-hour trial separation, it can be scary at first, then extremely relaxing.

Hope Reese

What are your top three tips that we can use to start separating from our phones?

Catherine Price

First: Get philosophical. Your life is what you pay attention to. When you catch yourself on your phone, think, “Huh, do I want to be paying attention to this right now?”

Next: Help yourself remember to do this by putting a rubber band around your phone. Then you have a physical prompt. You can also download a lock screen that reminds you of these things. Like, “Do you really want to pick me up right now?” Create speed bumps for yourself — little things that make you pause before you use your phone.

Finally: The whole idea of the breakup is to be nonjudgmental about it. One suggestion I give that terrifies people is to delete social media apps. They are specifically designed to be addicting. Use social media from the browser version. Physically walk to check it. Getting rid of social media is huge, and people don’t miss it as much as they think they will.

Hope Reese

Apple shareholders recently demanded that the company make its products less addictive. And [Mark] Zuckerberg himself said yesterday that Facebook has reduced hours spent on the site by 50 million a day. What do you think of these developments?

Catherine Price

You have to be a little bit skeptical when you hear the head of Facebook say he’s trying to get people to spend less time on Facebook. They just launched Facebook Messenger [Messenger Kids] for children. And advocacy groups, psychologists, are saying to get rid of it. It’s horrible.

I think it’s great that there’s more awareness of the problematic relationships we have with phones. It was a great open letter from the investors to address this. Even if it’s an attempt to help Apple’s share price, that’s great. If Apple’s going to make money by creating healthier products, that’s fine. The more we think about it, the better.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.

Sourse: vox.com

Break up with your smartphone

0.00 (0%) 0 votes

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here