Redefining phone addiction

Scitech Report

18 March, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Redefining phone addiction

Many digital wellness books, programs and apps encourage commonsense behavioral changes – say, leaving your phone outside your room when you go to sleep – aimed to help people regain control of their time in a digital economy designed to drip-feed information and dopamine in return for our data and attention.

Academics have been concerned about the addictive potential of computers for decades. As early as the 1970s, pioneering computer scientist and technology critic Joseph Weizenbaum warned that people had become “addicted” to modern technology and that there was a need for “withdrawal therapies”.

While these critiques were often overshadowed by prevailing techno-optimism – a belief that a more connected world was a better world – the narrative began to shift at the turn of the last decade with the rise of smartphones. As we became increasingly tethered to our screens, a growing number of experts and social commentators, like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, published grave warnings that we were spending too much time on them.

As trust in the tech industry has atrophied over the past few years, this critical perspective has become commonplace. Countless articles, studies and books now tell us how our screen addiction is making us more anxious and depressed, incapable of thinking deeply and too distracted to engage in meaningful relationships or self-reflection. Concerns are particularly acute in relation to young people and how it may affect their development.

Born out of this cultural anxiety is the digital wellness movement. Unlike earlier tech criticism, which sought to diagnose and raise awareness around tech addiction, digital wellness aims to provide solutions, often in the form of step-by-step programs.

Science journalist Catherine Price’s bestselling book of last year, How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Your Life Back, draws on cognitive science and philosophy to show how phones and social media platforms are designed like slot machines to lure us in. She then offers an action plan involving mindfulness strategies, like putting a rubber band around the device as a reminder to take pause before plugging back in.

Another popular format is the guided digital detox program. Jocelyn K Glei, who hosts a productivity-related podcast called Hurry Slowly, recently launched Reset, a four-week online course aimed to help “push back against the toxic habits of technology”. Her customers receive video talks, reset rituals (including daily victory dances) and meditations to learn how to become “empowered” rather than “overwhelmed”, “appreciative” rather than “critical” and “intentional” rather than “scatter-brained”.

Switching off, in this context, is an aspiration marketed directly at “busy people”, those for whom productivity and focus is key, but who can still ultimately afford to take time off. For this reason, many digital detox programs and retreats are associated with luxury.

For Holesh, part of the appeal of Moment is that it democratizes digital wellness by “meeting people where they are”. Many of the app’s newer functions – like “family mode”, which lets you monitor family screen time – are still free, and new customers get a one-week free trial for the paid coaching programs.

Last year Holesh hired Tim Kendall, a former Facebook and Pinterest executive known in Silicon Valley for taking ice baths and wearing a T-shirt that says “Focus”, to help grow the business.

Kendall, now CEO, told me that he sees the digital wellness as a growth area in the broader health and wellbeing industry, comparable to meditation apps, which in the first quarter of 2018 bought in $27m in worldwide revenue.

Kendall assured me that Moment does not use personal information beyond improving the service for users. But the privacy policy on the website states that personal information can be sold to third parties and used for “direct marketing purposes”, reinforcing the business model of the attention economy while offering a solution to its discontents through self-help.

For many stalwarts of the digital wellness movement, big tech’s embrace of their ethos is seen as disingenuous. “Tech companies love the idea of digital wellness because it puts responsibility on us,” Catherine Price told me. “It gives them an excuse to be like tobacco companies and just say, well if you don’t like us, you don’t have to use our product.”

Price also pointed out that Apple has been making life harder for independent digital wellness developers (some have even been suspended from the App Store.) “If they were concerned with our wellbeing, why would they do this?” she asked. “Frankly it all just seems like a PR exercise.”

Manoush Zomorodi, a journalist who has been writing about digital wellness since 2015, also questions whether companies that have become rich by designing mediated dopamine-driven feedback loops can be part of the solution without changing their business model.

While Price and Zomorodi acknowledge these structural problems, they also believe that digital wellness practices can be useful tools. “We should be using everything at our disposal,” Price told me. “If you want to see change immediately you have to have the personal responsibility approach because it means we can change right now.”

Yet Jenny Odell, an artist whose book How to Do Nothing is a personal meditation on how to disconnect from the attention economy, is concerned that the digital wellness industry, with its emphasis on regaining lost time and productivity, reinforces a deeper cultural problem.

Odell acknowledges that birdwatching wouldn’t work for everyone, and that many of the step-by-step digital wellness programs can be useful in providing people relief, but questions how sustainable these solutions are.

“Instead of following a program to get back focus and productivity I made myself open to idleness,” she says. “But the human desire for the quick fix is so deep that if you tell someone you have a number of steps with which they can remedy this really big structural and cultural problem, they will ignore the bigger picture and just take whatever they can get.”