By Dr Kate Little
“Mummy, you’re not listening” my son says.
“Mmmm. Sorry, I have just got to reply to this e-mail and I’ll be right with you…”
Only I get side-tracked and the next thing I know, I am checking the WhatsApp and Facebook notifications on my phone. An argument breaks out at top volume around me.
The problem is that we all feel negative after this. And when I reflect back, the whole episode was my own doing. But what is it about our devices that makes them so compelling and addictive that we lose touch with real life going on around us?
The Digital Age and Inf-O-besity
We now live in a fast paced, information-overloaded digital world. It is an age of “Infobesity” with multiple competing demands on our time and attention.
More and more people are working flexibly or from home and with that, the boundaries between work and personal life have become increasingly blurred.
Research has shown that the average person checks their phone at least 150 times a day, an average user touches their phone 2500 times a day and a high user, well over 5000 times! It is perhaps no surprise based on these statistics that the average e-mail goes unread for a mere 6 seconds!
We get sucked in, often without realising it. But the design is intentional and it is based on slot machine psychology.
The Ludic Loop
Ludic is Latin for playful. The Ludic loop, coined by anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design, is a cycle of repeating the same activity, impelled by occasional random rewards.
Schull studied users of slot machines in Las Vegas. She found that users get drawn into a repeating cycle of inserting coins and pulling the handle in the hope of hitting the jackpot. Because the reward is not predictable, the gamer’s attention is grabbed and the behaviour becomes compulsive. They don’t want to miss that slim chance of a win.
We may not all be gamers and gamblers but we are all vulnerable to a similar loop in our use of e-mails and social media. Think about this scenario: You pick up your phone – it has been at least 5 minutes after all – you glance at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and then take a peek on your email. Once you have done that, a few more notifications appear on Facebook so you check that again. Before you know it, 30 minutes has passed. You return to what you were doing, but the lure is there at the back of your mind. What if someone has replied? So you start the cycle again. You are in the loop. The product designers are playing on our fear of missing something important and our need for social approval and reciprocity.
The Attention Economy
In his article, “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind – from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist”, Tristan Harris explains how product designers “play our psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against us in the race to grab our attention.”
We think that we have free choice, but in reality it is the product designers who are controlling our choices. They do this upstream by designing the menu of options that we are offered.Our news feed, the Auto-play on You-tube and the suggested programmes on Netflix are all chosen for us.
According to Adam Alter, author of “Irrestible – Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching”, we enter a zone of “Flow” when we use these products, a zone where we become so immersed in the task at hand that we lose perspective of time.
The trouble is, there is no longer an end point. In his TED talk “Why screens don’t make us happy,” Alter argues that it is because they “rob us of stopping cues,” that signal that it is time to move on to the next activity. Before the inception of “on demand TV”, we would watch a TV show, and when it ended, we would have to wait until the next week to watch the next episode. Now, we can stay up all night and watch the entire series in one go if we want to.
Why does this matter?
As Alter observes, much of our screen time is not making us happy. And the problem, as we have seen, is that we are on our devices a lot.
Digital natives (those born into the world of laptops and mobile phones) spend on average 8 ½ hours a day exposed to digital technology and brain scans are showing that this negatively affects emotional aptitudes such as empathy.
Our pocket slot machines are with most of us 24/7. Young people check their phones on average 10 times a night. We go to bed with them. We wake up to notifications that we check before we have even got out of bed.
We are constantly high alert and this has consequences.
Excessive screen time is linked with introspection, depression, anxiety and reduced sleep. Have you ever checked your e-mail late at night and then lost sleep afterwards? I certainly have.
Reduced sleep affects our mood and behaviour and the way we eat so that we make less healthy choices, and so a vicious cycle develops. There are effects on our productivity: people are distracted through the working day, when at home and through the night, further affecting sleep and performance.
To compound the problem, products like Facebook can fuel our insecurities further as we compare ourselves unfavourably to others who post images of their “perfect” lives. We see the parties and social events that we perhaps weren’t included in and this can exacerbate our already fragile egos.
Most of us are already aware of the addictive power of our screens, and of cyber-bullying and exclusion, particularly in young people, but perhaps less aware of the impact on those that we care for. A health visitor I know observed recently how more and more children are commenting that they wished that their parents weren’t on their phone so much. Perhaps it is not just our children’s use of screens that we should be monitoring, but our own too.
So what can we do about it?
Here are some hacks to becoming a Digital Rebel:
- Take regular breaks to go offline even for a minute or two.
- Spend some time in nature every day, unplugged. Notice the colours. Listen to the sounds. Move about.
- Actively connect with people face to face, unplugged.
#2 Set a Digital Sunset
- Set a warm filter on screens in the evening.
- Invest in amber glasses to reduce the blue light if you do have to use your screen.
- Invest in an old fashioned alarm clock with no LED display.
- Leave your phone outside your bedroom.
- Stick to no screen time one hour before you go to bed.
#3 Alter the set-up of your phone
- Create an essential home page screen, moving distracting apps like Facebook and e-mails to the second page.
- Stop notifications or hide them in folders.
- Launch your apps without unlocking your phone by swiping up the Control Centre like you would do for your camera. This way your phone remains locked, reducing the chance of distraction.
#4 Set rules
- Set a timer on Internet browsing time.
- Ban phones at the table and in the bedroom.
- Delete the most time-consuming apps. Replace them with more productive ones.
- Put your phone out of easy reach when working.
- Schedule blocks of time at specific times of the day to check your e-mails and social media.
- Set your phone on airplane mode when you don’t want to be distracted.
The Power of Unplugging
Our screens are miraculous inventions. But the way we use them does not always make us, or those around us, happy.
So, become a digital rebel. Step out. Unplug. Go outside. Feel the grass beneath your toes. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the sun on your back and take a deep breath in. Life will be richer.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
How do you know if you are a high user?
On Apple, you can check your % usuage of apps and time since the last full charge in your Settings / Battery / Usage. You might be surprised by just how much you use it.