One App Is Trying to Undo Your Smartphone Addiction

August 23rd 2015

You probably take it to the bathroom with you. Or, it’s the first thing that you check when you wake up in the morning. In less than a decade, it has become a tool that millions of us cannot live without: our smartphones.

But despite all the good it does to help us communicate, manage our daily lives, and stay informed, there are growing concerns that smartphones may be bad for our health.

First, the good news. Physically, the smartphone is probably fine. Though theories have spread across the internet alleging that cellular phone waves can cause cancer and other abnormalities, scientists have mostly proven those theories wrong.

Now, the bad news. There is a growing body of evidence that smartphones may be affecting our mental health, and not in a good way. We all know about FOMO (fear of missing out), but it turns out that might just be the tip of the iceberg and the plethora of ways that smartphones can adversely affect our health.

Nicholas Carr, a noted technology critic and author of "The Glass Cage: Automation and Us," worries that automation may be reducing our human experience. As we give more and more of our lives, and, formally human functions, to smartphones, we might become, in his words "passive people whose superficial needs are immediately gratified but who lack any kind of deep satisfaction with their lives."

​Design is another issue, according to Tristan Harris, a Product Philosopher at Google. Smartphone apps are designed using the same methods and tools as slot machines in casino. They are meant to keep you pulling the lever, or, in this case, clicking or scrolling over, and over, and over again.

The blame lies in the fact that oftentimes, what is considered effective marketing is synonymous with addicting. Facebook, for example, touts the fact that the average user of its mobile app spends 40 minutes per day on it. Other apps developed run A/B tests, focus groups, and test new tools with the stated goal of getting us to spend more time on their app. Addiction is, in fact, a feature. The endless scroll, that keeps us going, is actually affecting our brain and creating addicting patterns not too dissimilar to drugs.

Do you feel a jolt when you receive a new Facebook message, or Twitter mention? Then you might be a victim of the addicting marketing methods integrated into far-too-many apps. Harris calls this the "attention economy" where technology tries to grab our attention by any means necessary.

This goes both ways. Facebook, for example, has become so cluttered that many feel obligated to share content as frequently as possible, so that it doesn't get lost in the endless scrolling news feed. At events, we are so caught up in capturing the moment and sharing it online, that we often forget to enjoy the moment for what it is. This would be another example of Carr's argument that technology is limiting our ability to be humans.

That is why Harris believes that we need to change how we design apps with our mental well-being in mind. As he stated in an essay published on his website:

"We’re not going to get out of this situation, or convince those apps or websites to do something else until we create a new kind of competition – until there’s a new thing apps and websites can compete for.

"What if instead of competing to get us to spend time, apps and websites were competing to help us spend our time well? What if they competed to create net positive contributions to people’s lives?

"I don’t want to be distracted anymore. I want a world that helps me spend my time well."

Imagine a world with less push notifications, where we could look at our phone once, and have enough information to ignore it for the next hour. Where design didn't try to be addicting but to blend in with your natural life.

There are new tools with this type of design built in. One social network I am especially excited about is called This., which is currently in beta testing, This. will allow users to only share one thing per day. That's right. One thing. So if you had 100 friends, you would see 100 posts from them per day, nothing more. You could then be sure that what you are seeing is the most important thing. And when you posted, you could choose a single moment to represent yourself. To me, that sounds incredibly liberating, and judging from the huge numbers of people on the waitlist for This., I'm not alone.

The fact that This. has garnered huge amounts of attention and interest is a sign that people are looking for an out from smartphone addition.

The next time you feel the urge to pull out your smartphone, take a step back and think – do I really need to check it right now? Do I really need to post something to Facebook at this moment? If not, why not wait? Your brain, and your mental-well-being, will thank you.

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