It’s the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about: our devotion to and dependence on our smartphones. For most of us, our children included, smartphones have become an appendage; a limb of voracious digital consumption and social obligation that keeps us scrolling, refreshing, swiping, and responding with no end in sight.
Any friend or psychologist would encourage us to rid ourselves of toxic relationships that hinder — even threaten — our emotional and physical well-being, but what if that relationship is with a smartphone? Would you be willing to give it up (or reset the relationship) if you knew it was toxic?
Researchers are increasingly debating the impact of the smartphone on our emotional well-being, and the debate often returns to striking a balance between the ethical design of technology versus corporate profitability. One of the most compelling arguments is that of researcher Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, on a crusade to inspire people to stop clicking and start caring about how technology is intentionally designed to shape the behavior of the people who use it. Harris has launched a nonprofit called Time Well Spent. His viral TED Talk proposes a renaissance in online design that can free tech users from being manipulated by apps, websites, and advertisers as the race for user attention increases.
From Facebook notifications to Snapstreaks to YouTube auto plays, Harris argues that our online behavior is anything but random. Instead, our thoughts and feelings are being carefully manipulated by technologists behind the scenes persuasively competing for more and more our attention.
Not convinced you among the tech lemming crowd? I wasn’t either. But the discussion got me thinking and inspired me to make some specific changes to test my smartphone dependence.
5 Ways to Drastically Reduce Smartphone Dependence
- Turn your phone to grayscale mode (google how to do this – it’s amazing)
- Turn off all push notifications (reclaim your attention span).
- Park your phone in one physical location (stop carrying it everywhere).
- Stand up when you use your phone (no more getting cozy for hours).
- Ban your phone from the bedroom (get an alarm clock).
I made these changes for a week and here’s what happened.
Absolutely no fun in sight for the first three days. Initially, I felt overcome with a sense of vulnerability, panic even that suddenly, somehow, I wasn’t in control of something. I felt an overwhelming need to check my phone every 15-30 minutes. That time gradually increased to about an hour by the third day. Not having my phone nearby, I was sure I’d miss out on something important. For the first few days, I constantly felt as if I had lost something and I’d get up and wander around before realizing my phone was docked safely in the kitchen — just like when I was growing up and had to physically walk to the kitchen to use the phone. I resolved to check my phone once every three hours rather than carry it with me from room to room. When I did check it, surprisingly, the world had not collapsed without my attention to it. I found an average of three texts (two from family with non-critical comments, and usually, one discount text from a retailer).
Because I turned my screen grayscale (wow, what a game changer!) I didn’t feel the anticipation of checking social media, scrolling, reciprocating, uploading, or commenting. My phone in the grayscale mode made using it stale, almost irritating. I realized looking at my phone in grayscale that I being overly influenced and pulled by pretty pictures and all the colors, sounds, links, and prompts, which had come to own my attention. Sadly, I was giving my time to this relationship without any meaningful, lasting benefit coming back to me. I was in a toxic relationship, and something had to change.
By the end of the week, I felt awesome, empowered almost. I had successfully distanced myself from a toxic relationship and redefined it on my terms. I also realized something profound: There’s an unspoken cost to unbalanced technology use I’m not willing to hand over any longer, and that is my time.
When I parked my phone in the kitchen, banned it from the bedroom, and refused to sit down with it, I noticed patches of extra time magically appear in my day. What could I do with all the time I once poured into my phone? As it turns out, quite a lot.
I’m keeping my new habits, and I’m encouraging my family to do the same for a good reason. Here’s what we know: Kids are spending more time on digital devices than ever before, and that trend has no reason to reverse. Anxiety disorders linked to social media use is at an all-time high. Also, researchers are confirming the link between technology, depression, and suicide among youth.
I’m not willing to just go with the flow on this one. There’s just too much is at stake.
Take the challenge: Are you willing to take specific steps (like the ones listed above) to rethink and redefine your relationship with your smartphone?
Let us know the highs and lows of your experience by commenting below. We’re cheering you on.
Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist to McAfee. You can find her on Twitter @McAfee_Family. (Disclosures).