Since I was a teenager, my new years resolutions have been the same – to get healthier. At 15 it was to be skinny (hindsight, an incredibly flawed idea of what healthy means). At 21, chill with the drinking, yo. At 27, do just ONE PUSH-UP – is it that hard, Ali? Really? Still can’t do one, BTW. At 29, I’m keeping with the tradition, but instead of focusing on my body, I’m focusing on my mind. Specifically, my attention span. It’s been hijacked. I’m sure most people reading this can relate. Actually, its been found that 50% of teens feel addicted to their phones. This isn’t an accident. Companies are competing for attention (much like our money) and design their tech to keep you wanting more. That’s why I started a new daily routine – leaving my phone at home and taking my dog on a 20 minute walk. It’s disturbing how often I feel the urge to pull out my phone.
10 minutes into my walk today (after getting over the nervous fidgeting) I thought, are there any brands acknowledging this dark side of tech? And if so, how are they handling it? I didn’t expect to find much. The entire social media industry banks on people spending as much time as possible on their platforms. This makes them money. And they like money. But surely, there is something to this idea of asking people to unplug. Go out and experience real life to make coming back to social media and sharing your experiences that much more fulfilling. Sometimes it feels hopeless, but there are people, organizations, and companies out there taking action to combat this problem from a few different angles.
Hardware – Yondr
Can anyone tell me why people video entire concerts on their phones? Do they really look at those 5 minute videos after they leave? Apart from the occasional quick snap, this is the one place everyone should stay phone-free. How do you ensure people keep their phones away without physically taking them away? Yondr invented a pouch that locks before the show starts. The attendee keeps their phone with them and can unlock it when they leave the “phone-free zone.” This not only keeps people present, but protects unreleased material that artists, like Alicia Keys and Dave Chappelle, may want to keep under wraps.
Advocacy – Time Well Spent
Tristian Harris was a former Design Ethicist at Google. According to this website, he “spent three years developing a framework for how technology should ‘ethically’ steer the thoughts and actions of billions of people from screens.” He has since left Google to focus on a non-profit initiative called Time Well Spent. Their goal is to catalyze a movement within the tech industry to develop ethical design standards that protect people from manipulation and tech addiction. He sees this as a moral issue, a “digital attention crisis” that needs to change. On the website, they highlight 4 “ways forward” to ending this crisis – Inspiring human design, applying political pressure, creating a cultural awakening, and engaging employees. Their website even provides useful tips on how to regain control of technology from turning off push notifications to turning your phone to grayscale (apparently the colorful icons are a “shiny reward every time we unlock”). This is the kind of person we need leading this revolution – someone that understands the design features and behavior reinforcements that get us addicted in the first place.
Investor Pressure – Janna Partners & California Teachers’ Retirement System (Apple)
Conveniently, on the news this morning there was a segment about Apple Investors urging the company to take action on smartphone addiction. According to the BBC, these investors hold $2 billion of Apple stock. In the letter to Apple, Janna Partners and California Teachers’ Retirement System noted how overuse of smartphones can “disrupt lessons, harm students’ ability to concentrate on schoolwork and deprive them of sleep.” It also noted how the heavy use of social media can negatively impact self-esteem and lead to depression. They want to see Apple increase parental controls, fund research on long-term effects of smart phone use, and consider design features such as reminders to take a break from the phone after long periods of use. Given the influence these investors have on Apple, it would be hard for the company to ignore their pleas. This is a promising development and one, I’m sure, other tech companies will keep their eye on.
App – Onward
Using tech to combat tech addiction? Sounds counter-intuitive, but Onward is seeing success. 89% of users reduced their usage in one of their trials. The basic version of the app tracks usage to make users aware of the habits they’ve developed. A more advanced version even provides a behavior change plan to cut down on usage. Onward’s co-founder CEO, Gabe Zichermann, doesn’t see a solution in going cold turkey. He says in a Business Insider piece, “The key is to have balance — to take your desired behavioral goals and have your own personal defensive algorithm to help you enforce your limits, boundaries and use criteria.” I think he has me sold.
Research – Facebook
Only a few weeks ago, Facebook wrote a blog post entitled “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” I was skeptical. When I first started reading, it felt defensive and a bit self-serving. As I read on, I was pleasantly surprised to see them admit the downfalls of their platform and explain how they were helping to address this issue. Mainly, funding research to understand how digital distraction is affecting our children and how Facebook can change to avoid these downfalls. A blog post should only be the first step. There should be a prominent place on their website outlining a comprehensive plan to engage other companies and the public in their efforts.
It may seem crazy for companies to ask their users to unplug. Why would they ever discourage the use of the products they created? Just like we ask people to “drink responsibly” companies must consider the moral imperative here. Its been proven that overuse of technology affects our mood, relationships, and attention spans. The first tech companies that step up to address this issue and devote time and resources to encourage balance and meaningful interaction with these tools might be pleasantly surprised by the positive implications it has on their business.