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Combating smartphone addiction: taking back control of your phone – and your mind

App designers manipulate the way our brains work to keep us hooked.

As I put my phone down next to the sink, a small warning flashed across my mind. “That could easily fall in,” I thought, before getting to work on the dishes. Thirty seconds later, my phone tumbled right in among the suds.

Smartphones are a ubiquitous part of daily life, with research showing that 85 per cent of UK adults own one. But they are still just a tool we use to make life easier – being without one should merely be a minor inconvenience. I have other ways of accessing the internet for work and keeping in touch with friends and family. So why did my phone’s fatal immersion make me feel as if a part of me had gone missing?

I found the answer in an unsettling new book by the US health journalist Catherine Price. She starts How to Break Up With Your Phone with a series of questions devised by Dr David Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut.

This quiz asks, among other things, “do you sleep with your phone in or near your bed?” and “do you find yourself mindlessly checking your phone many times a day, even when you know it is unlikely there is anything new or important to see?”. Answer “yes” to more than five questions, and you may have “a compulsive smartphone use pattern”. More than eight, and you may need to seek professional help for addictive behaviour. After reading this book, I think at least half the people I know would fall into the latter category.

Smartphone addiction is rife, Price explains. When you stop to think about it, this isn’t very surprising. The big tech companies that make smartphones and apps are constantly using their vast resources to keep you on your phone. The higher they can push “user engagement” – Silicon Valley-speak for “the amount of time you spend scrolling through Facebook” – the greater the opportunity they have of making money. The more you share about yourself, by filling out profiles on social media platforms and shopping online, the better they can tailor adverts to you.

App designers deliberately manipulate the way our brains work to keep us hooked, Price explains. Every time a new notification arrives, we get a release of a brain chemical called dopamine that has associations with pleasure and reward. The more this happens, the more likely we are to crave it, especially if the app purposely doles out its prizes sparingly. This is how we get addicted: our brains associate our phones with a reward, so we reach for them again and again to get a hit.

Although Price has created a manual for how you can “break up” with your phone, she emphasises that there isn’t anything wrong with using it however you want. The problem, she writes, lies with how quickly we integrated this intrusive new technology into our lives, without being aware of how it would change our behaviour. She has created a 30-day programme of exercises intended to release you from the constant compulsion to scroll and give you “a chance to stop and think” about what you are doing.

Price’s suggestions range from the extreme, such as a “digital sabbath” during which you turn your phone off for 24 hours, to the seemingly slight, such as reorganising your phone’s home screen so you can’t see the bright, tempting colours of your favourite apps the second you turn it on. 

Above all, she wants you to be conscious of the choices you make. One of her central ideas involves being fully aware of when you feel the need to reach for your phone, and why you are doing it. Is it ringing? Do you need to answer a message or look at a map? If not, maybe you could just leave it alone.

By the time I was halfway through following Price’s system, I was a convert. I deleted my social media apps in favour of the clunkier in-browser versions, which discourage me from scrolling for too long. I stopped charging my phone by the bed. The urge to check it for no reason is still there, but happens less often. I can go for hours with my phone situated in another room and not miss it at all until I need to do something. The phone no longer controls me. I am in charge. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game