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.”
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 offering points for reducing their smartphone habit, 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?”
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.”