‘Often, individuals are not aware of the extent of their smartphone use’: is your habit affecting your wellbeing?
As a tech writer who has written regularly about apps, I’m well aware of the addictive nature of smartphones. It was during a 2am panic attack after waking up, reaching for my smartphone and reading a tweetstorm about the latest Donald Trump controversy that I realised I may have a problem. That, and the fact that even my 10-year-old son had started telling me to put my phone down when he caught me not paying attention.
I’m not alone. When Deloitte surveyed 4,150 British adults in 2017 about their mobile habits, 38% said they thought they were using their smartphone too much. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, that rose to more than half. Habits such as checking apps in the hour before we go to sleep (79% of us do this, according to the study) or within 15 minutes of waking up (55%) may be taking their toll on our mental health.
“It’s not necessarily the top thing when my clients come in, but it’s often in the mix, tied in with anxiety or insomnia or relationship issues,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke, a spokesperson for National Unplugging Day in 2016 and 2017. “Particularly when anxiety and insomnia’s there, it’s rare that it’s not related in some way to heavy use of digital devices.”
Often, the apps themselves aren’t helping: from games to social networks, they’re precision engineered to create and feed our interaction neediness. According to British apps developer Nick Kuh: “A lot of these companies are employing behavioural psychologists to really nail that: finding ways to draw you back in. I’ve worked on apps like that myself, and it’s not something I’m proud of.”
“It’s so powerful to be truly bored: nothing in your head, so you can daydream. I think that’s when great ideas come"
Kuh is trying to make amends: his latest app is called Mute, and launched for iPhone this month (free). It’s one of several apps – Space and Moment are others – that track how often you unlock your phone and how much time you spend using it, in order to help you reduce your time on it.
For Space CEO Georgie Powell, “the wake-up moment for me was when I was breastfeeding my daughter while looking at photos of her on my phone. I was so distracted by my phone, I wasn’t present with her!”
Norwegian app Hold even tries to incentivise its student users by , which they can exchange for snacks and cinema tickets.
Two weeks in to testing them, I know that I average 52 unlocks per day and up to two hours of usage. I’m also used to their digital nudging. “Boom! 2H 33M break from your phone! Digital detox goal smashed!” pings Mute, with suitably cheery emoji. Space’s notifications are more prods, from “Hey Stu, is it time for a break?” to “Oh, it’s you again. Did you need to be here?”
In my case, this data led to action: I actively tried to pick up my smartphone less. That doesn’t surprise psychologists studying problematic smartphone usage.
“Raising awareness of one’s own smartphone use can be the first step in the right direction of decreasing smartphone use,” says Dr Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University. “Often, individuals are not aware of the frequency and extent of their smartphone use.”
Dr Sarita Robinson, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says: “It is a little like getting on the scales after Christmas and being confronted with how much weight you have really put on – when adding up your phone use over a week, the amount of time you are wasting can come as a big surprise.”
Seeing this data is just a first step, however. As Burke says: “Having the insight is only so good. What are you going to do about the insight? How are you going to make a change?”
There’s a parallel here with fitness apps and activity trackers: owning a Fitbit tells you how many daily steps you’re taking, but it’s actions like jumping off the tube or bus a couple of stops early, or taking a daily walk, that get you fitter.
Many changes seem common sense. Kuss suggests deleting the most distracting apps from your smartphone, and not sleeping with it next to your bed. Hypnotherapist and anxiety expert Chloe Brotheridge agrees, suggesting that I buy a bedside clock rather than use my phone’s built-in alarm. “Turn off notifications on your phone,” she adds. “Each notification – whether it’s due to gaining a follower on Twitter, or an email – is prompting you to pick up your phone. Without notifications, you’re in control of when you log in to Twitter or check your emails, and it could mean you check your phone less.”
Kuh relates his own family’s method. “We plug all our phones in at a certain time of night, mute the phones and put them face-down,” he says. “It’s a simple but effective way to not be constantly checking social media.”
Within that first fortnight of tracking my usage, and following this advice, I find myself in a vein of creativity, coming up with and pitching more feature ideas in my job as a freelance journalist than I had in the last several months of 2017. This may be no coincidence. “It’s good to be bored sometimes, to have that dead time,” says Burke. “That’s when ideas come. If we’re on our phone checking Facebook, we lose some precious time that previously we used for daydreaming: gazing out of the window and having ideas blossom.”
Powell agrees. “It’s so powerful to be truly bored: nothing in your head and nothing in your hands, so you can daydream. I really think that’s when great ideas come. Technology is fantastic, but we’ve got to be more conscious about how we use it.”
Apps like Space, Mute and Moment won’t be for everyone: some people may see their notifications as over-naggy, while others may be wary of the data that’s being shared – including location, on iOS, as a workaround to enable the apps to run constantly in the background.
Their business models focus on extra features: a one-off £3.99 in-app purchase in Moment unlocks family features and a “Phone Bootcamp” course of practical lessons to reduce device-time. Space’s £8.99-a-quarter subscription unlocks a friends-and-family mode to encourage one another.
Nearly 240,000 people have paid for Moment Premium, so there’s clearly a market – one that may well grow as the topic of problematic smartphone usage attracts more media attention.
Even Apple is under pressure over this issue, with two of its major investors recently calling on the company to do more to help parents tackle problematic smartphone usage by their children.
As another positive sign, Powell cites Silicon Valley initiative Time Well Spent, which is trying to push back against technology that hijacks our attention. “I’m very optimistic,” she says. “It’s amazing how many people are searching for help with this issue, but I also see more joy from people celebrating being phone-free.”
Five kick-the-habit apps
The newest app in this genre, Mute tracks screen-time and pickups, and logs your “detox streaks” with an emphasis on celebrating the latter.
Moment sets daily limits on your usage, and will even try to force you off the device with a barrage of notifications if you choose that option.
Space starts with a quiz to assign you a phone-user “type” (from Rabbit Hole Wanderer to Sticky Social Mitt) and then helps you set goals to change your habits.
Aimed at students, Hold tracks how much time they spend not using their phone, and converts that into points to be redeemed for real-world rewards.
Forest takes a different approach: starting the app plants a virtual tree, which grows for as long as you don’t quit the app (and thus use other ones), but dies if you exit.