The battle for your attention

Note: I also published this post on Irish Tech News.

“Watching too much television will rot your brain!” This was a common sentiment when television first came on the scene. Similar noises were also made with the advent of the telephone, and this type of fear is so entrenched in the human psyche that we can even trace it back to ancient Greece and the invention of writing. There is evidence that Socrates was staunchly against writing on the basis that it would cripple people’s ability to memorise.

All new forms of sharing information face resistance so it should not be surprising to find the same fears being stoked today regarding our smartphone addiction. However, the truth is that we should be sceptical of new technology — just not for the aforementioned reasons.

Source: Freedom and Safety

People check their smartphones 150 times per day, a recent study showed. This is digital junk food: Just as fast-food is pumped full of sugar, salt, and fat to induce bingeing, apps take advantage of human psychology to keep us coming back for more. Providing variable rewards are one component known to strongly reinforce behaviour. Messages and likes appear randomly and so we check for them compulsively. Research has shown that after checking for a notification, it takes 25 minutes on average to return to what you were doing. The deluge of tactics is limitless. Auto-playing videos on Facebook and Snapstreaks on Snapchat (which encourage users to interact daily) are just two specific examples. Although we feel like we make our own choices, how we use our phones is underpinned by the framework of the design, dictated by Apple, Google, or Facebook.

Talk of companies hacking the human psychology is tainted by paranoia, but the truth is that a small number of people in the tech industry influence how billions think every day. If Facebook introduces a new feature that causes people to linger on the site just a minute more, accumulated over its 2.2 billion users that amounts to over four thousand years of human time. A survey of 200,000 people tackled how people assess their smartphone usage. The amount of time people spent in each app was counted. Then, at the end of the day, they were asked if they regretted this use of time. For example, users of Spotify spent an average of nine minutes per day in the app and 95% of people considered this a positive use of their time. Users of Candy Crush Saga spent 46 minutes in the app, with 71% of people designating this time as wasted. Unsurprisingly, the longer someone spent in an app, the more likely they were to regret the experience.

Source: The Daily Star

Now that I was aware of the issues, could I do anything about it? A bout of self-experimentation was in order. I used an app to track how I used my phone for seven weeks. On average, I spent two hours per day using my phone. This might not seem like a lot, but it equates to a solid month per year. Looking at only apps I wanted to use less of (e.g. Instagram), I found that they occupied 100 minutes of my day, every day.

Then it was on to the next phase: taking action. For the next seven weeks, I tried my best to cut back with the aid of a few tricks. I deleted apps like Facebook and Twitter from my phone since I could check them periodically on my desktop if necessary. I turned off notifications from Gmail, Snapchat, Instagram, and others. I banned myself from using my phone when eating or watching television. As a result, I succeeded in reducing my phone usage by 25 minutes per day on average, with nearly all this decrease stemming from apps I viewed negatively. To put it another way, over the seven weeks I recouped 20 hours of my life which I would have otherwise wasted.

This graph shows how long I spent using my phone each day. I plotted the weekly averages as otherwise it is too noisy.

It became clear though that just being cognisant of the battle for my attention was insufficient to break its spell. I still bounce mindlessly through apps on my phone, against my better judgement, looking for another monotonous meme; another meagre dopamine hit. It is my willpower though, on one side of the screen, versus an army of tech employees on the other, whose job it is to maximise the time I spend scrolling.

Our relationship with the smartphone has become unbalanced and acknowledging the fact that technology is not inherently neutral is the first step to addressing the asymmetry. There are murmurs of progress though. The act of downgrading one’s phone to a basic model is a growing trend. On an industry-wide level, non-profit organisations like Time Well Spent advocate for changing the incentives and improving design practices. A healthier alternative to the current diet of tech junk food will emerge in time. Technological advancements have the ability to improve our lives, so we need not inherently resistant to change – we just to have keep the balance tilted in our favour.

Footnote: I just want to mention a few additional points I’ve come across since writing the above post.

  1. Until about a decade ago, most forms of entertainment had a natural end point. A newspaper only contains so many stories. A DVD has a fixed runtime. Episodes of TV shows were aired at a rate of one a week for only part of the year. This curbed the pace at which we consumed these media. Taking Facebook as an example (although it applies across the board), you can scroll ad infinitum. As a result, we have to impose our own consumption limits. A similar comparison can be made with other addictions. If you are addicted to, say, alcohol, there is only so much you can drink before passing out. Whereas if you’re addicted to gambling, you can keep going and borrowing as there is no limit in place to stop you.
  2. Propinquity is a concept in psychology whereby the objects which are closest to us shape the majority of our day-to-day experience. Now, a study has shown that 75% of people have phones within arms reach 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A high percentage even sleep with it under their pillow. This suggests that a disproportionate amount of our lives are determined by our phones. Purposefully leaving it at home when going for a walk or charging it at night outside the bedroom can have a significant impact on limiting this effect.
  3. There are a lot of people working in this space that are worth keeping an eye on. They include Tristan Harris, Adam Alter, and Molly Crockett. Follow them on Twitter or whatever platform you peruse. (The irony, I know…) They each express different concerns regarding how we interface with technology. Crockett does interesting work around how we use social media to express outrage.