I am not afraid of dying in a plane crash. I like flying for the same reason many people hate it: everything is out of my control. If my plane started plummeting to the earth, there is nothing I could do. In the same way, I love flying because the demands of daily life – answering emails, consuming the news, posting on social media about how great I am – disappear. At least, I used to love it, until I noticed on a recent flight that I had wifi.
I couldn’t resist logging on. In that moment, I realised the depth of my internet addiction. During the rest of my holiday, I had only intermittent internet access – asking for wifi passwords in bars, or walking slowly past branches of McDonald’s.
Again, I loved it. Checking the internet in small doses and in a perfunctory way (do I have any new emails? Has Twitter cancelled me for a tweet I sent in 2009?) was refreshing and incredibly enjoyable. Logging on felt like a treat that could be savoured – I was instantly healthier and happier.
Suddenly I could read (maybe even write?) a book. I felt like my eyes had been opened, and I realised how endlessly scrolling adversely affects my life. I learned a lesson that I could take home with me, stuffed in my carry-on alongside a few bags of green tea- and red bean-flavoured Kit Kats. Now, my phone is locked away at night – truly, I am a better person than you.
Or not. As soon as my return flight landed and my mobile data was back, I spent four hours and 45 minutes scrolling through my phone. As soon as wifi became available on my plane, I realised that I can only have a healthy relationship with my phone and the internet when physically forced to do so.
I am not alone. This is why there are apps and services that lock you out of your phone or monitor your internet use. In 2018, Apple introduced an iPhone feature called Screen Time, where you can limit the time you spend on a particular app. It also informs users of the extent of their phone use.
Our unhealthy relationship with gadgets is arguably not our fault: the internet is designed to be addictive. The former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris has spoken out about how technology giants design their products so that we use them compulsively.
Harris claims companies such as Apple and Google “hijack our brains”, comparing apps to addictive slot machines full of risks and rewards. When we look at our phone, or refresh our email, the action sometimes (but not always) brings interesting news or a communication from someone we love. Technology also exploits our fear of missing something important (“Fomsi”) and our desire for social approval (all those Instagram likes).
“The average person checks their phone 150 times a day,” Harris wrote in 2016. “Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?”
The statistics are truly eye-opening. Smartphones have been with us for just over a decade, but they have changed our daily lives in a fundamental way. Alongside the increased availability of high-speed internet connections, they have dramatically increased our time online. An August 2018 report from Ofcom found the average Briton spends more than a day a week online, with one in five of us spending more than 40 hours a week on the internet.
That means the work done by people such as Harris is vital: he has been called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” and is the founder of the movement Time Well Spent. He is campaigning to improve ethics in technology design, so that companies don’t continue to monopolise our time for profit.
Harris’s work is commendable and effective: in January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook’s focus for the year would be on “time well spent”. (The jury’s still out.) It is also worth remembering that Apple’s Screen Time feature only came about because third-party competitors were already offering the same service. We must continue to pressure tech companies to help us control ourselves.
That said, although we can link tech design to increased tech use, scientists have begun to warn against some of the more alarming headlines about increased phone use. On 4 January 2019, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health announced that screen time was not intrinsically bad for children’s health – countering years of scaremongering news reports.
“The academic debates around screen time have been somewhat overturned recently by a number of really useful pieces of research,” says Dr Linda Kay, a psychologist who writes on screen time and well-being. “Most academics now urge the debate to move beyond screen time to explore the specifics of what this means in real terms – the content that is being engaged with and the context.”
In other words, what we’re doing online or on a screen is arguably more important than how long we’re doing it for. Reading a Kindle is not the same as scrolling through Twitter, or bidding on eBay, or FaceTiming our family. Perhaps we don’t need to use our phones less, but use them better.
Certainly, I would like to have greater control over how I use my phone. Putting it away in the evenings is like eating a four-bean salad for dinner – you know you’ll feel great after, but oh my good Lord in heaven, can you literally imagine anything worse?
That’s why I am not afraid of dying in a plane crash – but I am afraid that as wifi in the sky becomes more available and affordable, I’ll lose those eight or so hours that remind me of the pleasure of a disconnected existence.
My phone use is a problem that I’m only just fully accepting. I hope technology changes, but I hope I do too.
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?