Now there's help to stop you scrolling past your screen addiction
There are new apps to tell you when to keep your smartphone obsession in check, so no more excuses!
I didn’t need Scroll-Free September, a month-long reminder to spend less time with our smartphones, to tell me that I’m addicted to mine. I’ve known that for a long time.
The symptoms were all there: an unease when my phone is out of sight or reach, a vague sense of panic when the battery is low, and an uncontrollable urge to check it before I fall asleep.
But the terrifying power that my smartphone has over my every waking hour was fully revealed to me when I downloaded Apple’s latest operating system.
The new version of iOS 12, which was made available to download last week, contains digital wellness features to help tackle smartphone addiction and limit the amount of time users spend on their phones. Known collectively as Screen Time, the widgets appear in the handset’s Settings menu and include activity reports, app-limiting timeouts, a “do not disturb” option, and more intuitive control of so-called “push” notifications, those pop-up messages that drag you back to the screen ... and straight down a digital rabbit-hole.
The need for action has never been so clear. Last week, a survey for Marie Claire concluded that modern women are chained to their smartphones. Almost a quarter of women in their 30s and one in five in their 40s compulsively check their screens about 200 times a day – that’s once every few minutes.
According to Dr Mark Griffiths, Britain’s leading addiction expert, social media firms such as Facebook and Snapchat have developed an arsenal of techniques to keep us glued to our smartphones.
Having spent more than three decades studying the gambling industry, he has identified several hooks that drive “habitual use” of our mobiles, from the validation of others on social media to the satisfying “pull-to-refresh” gesture that refreshes a screen.
“I don’t think Facebook or Instagram are deliberately trying to addict people,” says Dr Griffiths, “but what they are trying to do is to maximise the time that people are on their network, because that relates to the advertising they can raise.”
Since Apple announced its new suite of time-managing features, I have been testing them out to see what impact they might have on my own smartphone behaviour.
First up was Activity Reports, which provides a detailed weekly, daily and hourly breakdown of the total time spent in each app, as well as the number of notifications received per app category. I discovered, to my horror, that an average day saw me spend four hours or more on my smartphone. My last check usually came late at night, meaning some days I was on my phone from 6.30am until midnight.
Another new feature showed me my number of “pickups” – how often I fiddled idly with my phone. While I might have only reached for it once to answer a call or reply to a text, Apple iOS 12 revealed the truth: that I obsessively check my phone around 140 times a day. I was stunned to discover that almost a quarter of my waking hours were spent glued to a smartphone screen.
Part of Apple’s new “digital wellness” suite includes Downtime, which limits the times you can access certain apps on your phone. (To cut down on an evening of smartphone bingeing, I set mine to between 7am and 7pm.)
About a year ago, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone after I found myself mindlessly scrolling through the news feed. Now, Twitter is my main smartphone vice. The new iPhone software lets you set an app limit – essentially a time block on a particular type of app. When time’s up, that’s your lot for the day.
When it comes to wasting time on your phone, “push” notifications are part of the problem, drawing you back to the screen when you least expect it. Pioneered by Apple in 2009, these buzz-vibrate alerts have transformed how often we interact with our smartphones. But research suggests they are as distracting as an incoming call, and reduce our concentration even if we ignore them.
Historically, it has been difficult to turn off “push” notifications, as the settings for individual apps have been spread around the smartphone’s architecture, rather than located centrally. But all this has changed with iOS 12, in which users can swipe left on a notification to reconfigure their settings instantly. While the Screen Time features have shown me just how deep my reliance on my smartphone is, I am not likely to cut down my use entirely – after all, my smartphone is like a portable workstation, and my main method of communication.
Ultimately, it’s going to take some personal discipline to reduce my phone use. For today, at least, my average time spent staring at my phone is more like two hours, rather than four. By highlighting the “triggers” and the problem apps that draw me in the most I feel I’ve been handed back a little power over my iPhone use. Will these changes stick? Only time will tell.
– © The Daily Telegraph