Phone Addiction: Why You’re Hooked & How To Cut Back

Most of us divide our days between hours of mindless Instagram scrolling and everything else. Even though we’re constantly reminded of how bad phone addiction might be for us.

Some pretty scary stats are coming out linking “just a quick scroll…” with: 

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • and poor quality sleep

just to name a few.

But alas, we shelve it as a problem for our future self, only to go back to check the views on our InstaStory. Such is the human condition. 

Distractions have indeed been around forever, but today they are highly sophisticated, curated entirely to our behaviour and motivations, and we willingly carry them around with us 24/7. 

We aren’t addicted to our phones by accident. It is actually very predictable, considering most of the apps, software and tech we use today have more academic titles behind them than the combined writing staff of The Simpsons. And probably a couple of alumni from B.J Fogg’s infamous Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, too.

How did we get here?

Well, our Palaeolithic needs for validation and social connection that our phones tap into definitely don’t help our cause. It’s what inspired B.J Fogg, a social science research associate and author, to delve deep into our psychology. His teachings at Stanford University played a massive part in getting our devices to the point they can today predict our behaviour better than we can. 

It sounds sinister AF, but like anything else, tech is a tool. It can be used for good, like inspiring to achieve fitness goals, or for evil. It was only when money started twisting the original intentions of these personal sharing platforms that things took a turn for the worse. 

Fogg’s students, like Ed Baker, (Facebook and Uber), Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (Instagram), translated his research into their start-ups.

And can you guess what happened next? VC’s pounced on them.

They understood the ROI potential of apps which could hold our attention, predict our behaviour and capture our data. This, in turn, spawned other apps, chasing the same financial success. 

The Winning Formula

Nir Eyal, another Fogg alumni, elaborates on the most basic strategies our phones and apps use to trap us in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

There are four of those strategies in a nutshell.

  1. Trigger
    The trigger is what gets us going. It can either be external, such as a link, or an app icon, or even better, an internal one. The intention is that we feel a strong emotion and connect the app’s product as the solution to fulfilling it. Bored? Jump on Youtube. Curious? Check Google. Lonely? Jump on Tinder.
  2. Action
    We are encouraged to take some form of action like clicking or scrolling, and it’s designed to both entertain, and agitate. Green notifications feel fun, exciting and easy, but they get far less attention as stressful, anxiety-inducing and time-sensitive red ones.
  3. Variable Reward 
    This bit proves we’re just apes walking around with monkey brains. Good luck to us. ‘Variable Reward Schedules’ are the same formulas that underpin your local pub’s poker machines. Effectively, our happiness and levels of dopamine spike more with the anticipation of getting a reward, rather than with the reward itself. So we keep playing, swiping and logging in, in the hopeful expectation that we find something when we do. And it’s the unpredictability of “will we or won’t we”, that keeps us coming back. 
  4. Investment 
    You are prompted to add more data, in the form of friends, followers, pictures, messages, so your experience is better each time you return. Basically you’re just loading the gun with more triggers to draw you back in. 

No matter how mentally strong you are, you aren’t immune. But remember it’s the business model which made things this fucked, not the people behind them. Though those who are more self-aware of these basic principles and their effects on them can find ways to curtail them.

Most apps were intended to scratch some kind of itch, and if they’ve made it to your device, it’s generally because they solve a problem for you. Our only currency is our choice and attention. And hardly any of us realise how easily we’ve been giving it away.

You think you have infinite ‘free choice’ when you play on your phone, but the formula above just emphasises that it has all been pre-set for you from a drop-down menu of options, each one more addictive than the next. Everything from button size and placement, down to colour hue, has been curated to the tee in order to extract something from you. 

So, who is going to own it?

Tristan Harris, yet another Fogg alumni, was dubbed ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,’ by The Atlantic. He spent years at Google as a design ethicist, before founding the non-profit Centre for Humane Technology. 

He spends his days exploring the ethics and responsibilities of consumer tech, and all he has been able to conclude is that it’s an unforgiving problem of mammoth proportions. He’s proposed drastic moves like policy changes, more activism from shareholders and masses of Silicon Valley employees all speaking out. 

Tech giants are merely throwing it back on him, and us, as consumers, saying we simply need to wake up. And you know what? They’re right.

Now that you know, what are you going to do about it? We’re not going to stop using our phones, and nor should we. In a period of social chaos, you can assume you’ll be even more inclined to share, communicate, and source information from the comfort of your home. However, you need to do it with the right intent and heighten your self-awareness.

Harris’ top tips to get off the crack

The tools are already there for us. We just need to know how to access them. 

  • Switch your phone to grayscale
    Why? Colourful rewards are visibly addictive, think Vegas, no windows and no escape. For iPhone users, set up an ‘Accessibility Shortcut.’ You can toggle between colour to black and white with three clicks of the side button. 
  • Put your apps in two folders – 1. Tools, and 2. Others 
    Why? Most of our scrolling is unconscious. You can avoid it by dividing up your essential daily apps, like banking, fitness tracking and maps, and then chucking the rest in ‘other’ and throwing away the key. Get into the habit of typing the app name in the search bar, or asking Siri etc to manage basic tasks for you.
  • Know your phone settings and pull them apart
    Why? If you turn off notifications, you have no triggers; it’s that simple. The apps have no power over you. Work out who can bother you, and then configure ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘Aeroplane Mode’ to reflect it. 
  • Get your phone the hell out of your bedroom
    Why? When you’re in the proximity of your phone, you’re subconsciously feeling the anxiety of notifications you’re expecting from the interwebs. Besides, reaching for your phone the first thing every morning and the last thing before you go to bed significantly affects how you sleep and how you start your day. Reach for your partner first thing, and not the gram. This advice is perhaps more important than ever as businesses enforce work from home policies nationwide.
  • Set regular alarms or plan interruptions 
    Why? The ‘ludic loop’ is the name of that relaxed hypnotic state you enter when you’re swiping or scrolling, over and over… and suddenly it’s been an hour?! You know the one. You legitimately need to be shaken out of it and setting up vibrations or regular alarms will do the trick.

This one initially sounded counterintuitive, but since I slapped an Apple Watch Series 5 with Cellular capabilities on my wrist, I’ve had a massive spike in productivity. It can block all social notifications and allow you to curate exactly what comes through to your wrist. You can essentially go phoneless throughout the day and have long stretches of uninterrupted workflow. It’s a great way to stay connected, without the FOMO. 

If you’re an extreme case, you can always use some tried and tested apps that block you entirely from sites and apps for a fixed period, like Freedom, Rescue Time and Flipd. Or desktop plug-ins like adblockers, Facebook Newsfeed Eradicatorand Distraction-Free Youtube which let you cruise around Chrome and have the chance of being a little bit productive.