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  1. Science & Tech
17 February 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 5:34am

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

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

By Caroline Crampton

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.

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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.

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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. 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist