Too much tech can be bad for you. Here’s what happens when people are left to fighting their own devices.
I knew I had lost control when a good friend confronted me over coffee. In the 30 minutes we had been chatting, I had checked my phone about 11 times. I wasn’t counting — but she was.
“Is this just a nervous twitch for you now?” she asked.
Of course not. I had a list of excuses: What if there was a Slack message about a breaking news story I needed to cover? A reply to my story on Instagram? A family emergency? Except it was a Saturday, and I wasn’t working. The replies to my funny video about chickens running loose at a local bodega could wait. And if my family really needed me — they would call.
That was a defining moment when I realized that — like many others in the US who average over four hours a day looking at their phone — I was addicted to my mobile device.
As we’ve gone from inbox zero to inbox infinity, there’s a growing realization that staring at our phones all day probably isn’t great for our mental health. A whole new industry has cropped up around cutting out, limiting, or modifying our dependence on popular — let’s say ubiquitous — technology. Chain hotels are locking away their guests’ phones to ensure a more blissful vacation. Young gamers in suburban Seattle are attending AA-style meetings to cope with withdrawal from the dopamine hits that come with successfully shooting a target on a virtual screen. And there’s a whole new subgenre of self-help books designed to coach people on how to dial down their reliance on digital technology.
These programs can be labelled under different names — digital wellness, digital detox, digital minimalism — but they’re all addressing the same issue.
We’ve lost control over how we let tech into our lives.
Ironically, some of the first groups to find coping mechanisms for tech’s ubiquitous reach were the hyper-aware Silicon Valley elite. Early dissent started within tech’s inner circles — like former Google ethicist Tristan Harris, who coined the idea of “Time Well Spent” — and spread to tech employees who spent their days building apps and their off-time raising their children not to use them. And while the research around the effects of cellphone use is still developing because it’s a relatively new topic, there’s a general scientific consensus that cellphone addiction is a real problem.
Even tech bosses like Tim Cook, Jack Dorsey, and Mark Zuckerberg have publicly acknowledged the powers of their tools to damage your mental well being — and some have built features into their technologies that try to gently ease people out of overuse. Some have criticized this approach, saying that if tech execs really wanted to help people with smartphone dependence, they would change their products to be inherently less addictive.
Here’s the reality: That would require tech companies to radically change their business models. Like most people, I figure I have more control of my daily smartphone habits than I do over limiting tech giants’ revenue targets, so I started researching ways that I could regain some control over how much time I spend looking at a shiny screen.
Here’s are some of the most popular methods, where they came from, and whether they actually seem to be working for people.
The idea here is pretty simple: Cut your phone use for a temporary period of time to break the cycle of addiction. With this approach, you’re essentially treating your cellphone apps like a giant buffet of desserts. Cut the chocolate-sprinkle donuts and cookie-dough ice cream out of your diet for a set period of time until you curb the sugar cravings, then slowly reintroduce only the stuff you really need into your diet.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor who has written best-selling books about working habits (and somehow managed to achieve commercial success in the 21st century without Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook), is publishing a new book devoted in part to this idea, called Digital Minimalism. In it, lays out a philosophy around how to accept but reduce the presence of technology in your life, including a 30-day digital declutter program.
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Newport make the case for the digital minimalist philosophy, writing that it “dethrones” the smartphone “from a position of constant companion down to a luxury object, like a fancy bike or a high-end blender, that gives you great pleasure when you use it but doesn’t dominate your entire day.”
Newport isn’t the first to dish out advice for practically changing digital habits. Catherine Price’s recent book, How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life, warned how to know when you’re addicted to your phone, and a guide for phasing it out (trick: You don’t do it all at once). You can do this anywhere; beyond the cost of the book itself, it’s a pretty cheap method.
The big question with these kinds of programs is, what happens after your self-induced time out? Do people really cut out the apps that they don’t need? The whole idea of a digital detox period is pretty new, so it’s just too early to say with any certainty how effective these programs are in sustaining long-term change.
Sam Kirschner, head of operations at an early-stage venture capital firm, wasn’t looking for a full-on digital cleanse as much as a reasonable digital diet plan.
So he only lets himself on Instagram for 15 minutes a day, and averages less than five minutes a day on Facebook. Built-in timers on his cellphone operating system help him enforce that.
“My main reason was productivity,” wrote Kirschner in a message. He said he finds too much Instagram and Facebook distracting, and ultimately “didn’t want to be a slave to these companies serving me ads.”
If you have an iPhone, the Screen Time feature, which is built into Apple’s iOS, is the easiest option. You can limit how much time you spend on each app. After a five-minute warning, you’ll be stopped from using the app. There’s an option to override your restriction with a passcode. For people like Kirschner (who definitely has more self-restraint than me), the warning is enough to get him to get out of the app.
Google’s Android has a similar set of features you can download, with an app called Digital Wellbeing. Google’s version is more aggressive — it truly locks you out when you’ve surpassed your app limits. But it’s less proactive about reminding you of your habits, since it it doesn’t send you weekly usage reports the way Apple does.
A lot of people find these weekly reports to be more of a nag than a motivator, though — and there’s no evidence yet as to how much they are truly affecting user behavior.
Facebook and Instagram also have their own time-well-spent features that monitor how long you’re using the apps, allow you to set limits, and block notifications for certain time for periods. Snap and even some dating apps like Bumble have similar options.
For me though, the problem with any kind of one-off tweaks for limiting apps is that setting up your phone to only let you use precisely the apps you want, when you want, can feel like an impossible exercise. The same goes for customizing notification and badge settings.
It’s time-consuming and hard to anticipate which apps you’ll need when. One friend, who put limits on social app usage, ended up locking herself out of some logistical apps that she actually needed, including Lyft. Of course she could fix this, but as apps pop in and out of our lives, going by this program is a constant balancing act of utility versus trade-off.
For someone like me who doesn’t want to bother with optimizing settings for dozens of apps, getting a “dumb phone” could be an attractive option. Dumb phones, like early cellphones, generally are either not internet-connected or aren’t optimized for heavy app usage. You can use this instead of or in parallel with your smartphone so you’re a little less obsessed with it. Palm and candy-bar Nokia phones are popular options.
But there’s something counterintuitive about buying an extra phone to stop me from using my existing phone. And since you can now essentially convert your iPhone into a “dumb phone” through the Screen Time setting called “Downtime,” which blocks all apps except the ones you choose and still lets you call and text, there’s no unique utility for me here.
I was impressed by how, despite all the built-in tech tools and formal programs out there, a lot of people took more D.I.Y. approaches to rationing their media use. As Kashmir Hill has chronicled for Gizmodo, it’s extremely difficult trying to free yourself from big tech companies’ products completely, even if you’re committed to quitting. For more people, it ends up being a series of self-determined negotiations for cutting bits and pieces of tech out of their lives.
For example, many people delete Facebook and Instagram from their phones, so that they’re limited to using it only on their laptops — where they’re less inclined to scroll into oblivion.
One person who still wanted Instagram and Facebook apps on her mobile device but wanted to limit her use, found a more nuanced hack: setting her Instagram and Facebook apps to only use wifi rather than data. This way, she could only use the apps when she was at home.
Another friend conveniently forgot his Facebook password and purposely has never bothered to log back in. So far, it hasn’t bothered him.
There’s something appealing to me about people coming up with their own mechanisms to regulate their cellphone use instead of waiting on tech companies to add more nannying features to the latest software upgrade.
For people who find self-induced restrictions too hard to enforce or just want an escape from their cellphones, there are actual retreats. These can cost you: A creative writing detox retreat in Ibiza runs around $2,200 for a week of connection-free bliss (sans airfare).
Since spending thousands of dollars to have someone babysit my cellphone is out of the question for me, I’m more likely to follow the advice of people who schedule regular weekend camping trips to places they know they won’t have cellphone service.
Turn it off
There’s also a seemingly too-obvious solution to all this: Turn off your phone. Some people do it for a couple hours at a time, or on one designated day of the week. For people who lack the self-discipline to do this, there are lockboxes and charging beds and all kinds of physical devices meant to isolate your phone if you don’t trust yourself to keep it off. But at the end of the day, many people find just turning off their cellphones and putting them far away works just fine.
Despite the fact that phones continue to get bigger and brighter and better to look at, some people are dead set on weakening the visual appeal of their devices by making their phone screens gray.
Gray-scale is a built-in feature on iOS and Android that’s meant for people with visual impairments, but is now widely used by people trying to fight their smartphone addiction. The idea is that if your phone is less pretty to look at, you’ll look at it less.
While this may be true for many, others still ultimately fall into the addictive trap of social media. As the Guardian’s Alex Hern writes:
Once you’re actually in a social network, the slot machine effect continues to work just as well as it always has: pull to refresh, see if you’ve got more likes, look at the new posts that appear, rinse and repeat.
Tech-addiction therapy is a new and growing field in psychology. There’s a movement among experts to get it included as an official disorder in the next edition of the leading American psychology manual, the DSM-5. Internet addiction has already been considered a psychological disorder in China since 2008, where government-approved facilities try to cure tech addicts. While it isn’t as widely pathologized in the US, cellphone dependency is certainly a topic that psychologists can treat patients for.
All these methods are essentially coping mechanisms to deal with the underlying problem that the popular technology that connects us can also suck us into an addiction. There’s a bigger discussion to be had about how tech companies can systematically decrease the stickiness of their own products — perhaps at the expense of their own bottom line — rather than focus on “digital wellness” fixes. In the meantime, we’re here, left to fighting our own devices.