By Ashley Whillans, Harvard Business School
We’re squandering increasing amounts of time distracted by our phones. And that’s taking a serious toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Perhaps ironically, software developers themselves have been at the forefront of efforts to solve this problem by creating apps that aim to help users disconnect from their devices. Some apps reward you for staying off your phone for set periods of time. Others ‘punish’ or block you from accessing certain sites or activities altogether.
But over the past year, Apple has been removing or restricting some of the top screen time or parental control apps from its App Store, according to a New York Times analysis. At the same time, Apple — which cited privacy concerns for removing the apps — launched its own screen-time tracker that comes pre-installed on new iPhones.
Limiting iPhone users’ access to other types of apps is a bad thing because certain ones may work better for some people than others. And research by myself and others shows that excessive technology use can be problematic. In extreme cases, it is linked to depression, accidents and even death.
But what makes some apps work better than others? Behavioural science, my area of expertise, can shed some light.
Why we need help
Technology is designed to be addictive. And a society that is ‘mobile dependent’ has a hard time spending even minutes away from their app-enabled smartphones.
In 2017, US adults spent an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day using their smartphones and tablets. This is double the amount from just five years ago, according to an annual survey of internet trends. Another survey suggests most of that time is spent on arguably unproductive activities like Facebook, gaming and other types of social media.
This addiction has consequences.
The most serious, of course, is when it leads to fatalities, like those that result from distracted driving or even taking selfies.
But it also takes a serious toll on our mental health, as my own research has demonstrated. One experiment I conducted with a colleague found that looking at Facebook profiles of people having fun at parties made new college students feel like they didn’t belong. Another study suggested that people who spent more time using social media were less happy.
Ultimately, our phones’ constant connection to the internet — and our constant connection to our phones — means that we miss out on bonding with those that we care about most, lowering everyone’s happiness in the process.
Trying to unplug
The good news is that most of us aren’t oblivious to the negative effects of technology and have a strong desire to disconnect.
As you might expect in a market economy, businesses are doing their best to give us what we want. Examples include a Brooklyn-based startup selling bare-bones phones without an internet connection, hotels offering families discounts if they give up their mobiles during their stay, and resorts creating packages built on the idea of creating sacred spaces where consumers leave their devices at home.
And app developers have also risen to the challenge with software aimed at helping us use our phones less.
Goal setting is key
Apple’s screen-time app is a good first step because it shows you how much time you are spending on apps and websites — and possibly raise some red flags. However, many apps go much further.
Research suggests that you should download applications that ask you to set specific goals that are tied to concrete actions. Making commitments upfront can be a powerful motivator, even more so than financial incentives.
For example, Moment asks users to set specific technology-limiting goals tied to their daily actions, such as setting up an alert when you pick up the phone during dinner time. Offtime prompts users with warnings when they are about to exceed the limits for an online activity they’ve set.
Flipd takes it a step further and actually completely blocks certain phone apps once users have exceeded pre-determined targets — even if you try to reset the device — making it the ultimate commitment app. Similarly, Cold Turkey Blocker prevents users from accessing literally any other function of their desktop computers for a certain period of time until they have completed self-set goals, like writing. While this might not affect phone use, it could help you be more productive at work.
Defaults are your friend
Another helpful trait in an application involves configuring default settings to encourage less technology use.
In their award-winning book Nudge, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein showed how adjusting the default for a company’s retirement plan — such as by requiring employees to opt out rather than opt in — makes it easier to achieve a goal like saving enough for your golden years.
Your phone’s applications can take advantage of that technique as well. Freedom, for example, is an app that automatically blocks users from visiting ‘distracting’ apps and websites, such as social media and video games. Unfortunately, it is one of the apps that Apple removed from its store.
Ransomly alters the default setting of a room — such as the dining room — to be phone and screen free by using a sensor and app to automatically turn off all devices when they’re in the vicinity.
Rewards and punishments
Offering rewards is another strategy that is grounded in behavioural research.
We tend to highly value rewards earned through effort, even when they have no cash value. Indeed, smartphone software frequently takes advantage of this idea, such as in various apps that offer “badges” for hitting certain daily fitness milestones.
Productivity apps incorporate these rewards as well by providing users with points for prizes — such as shopping discounts and yoga experiences — when they meet their screen-time goals. Since static rewards become demotivating over time, choose an application that provides uncertain and surprising rewards.
An even more powerful motivator than earning rewards can be losing them. That’s because research shows that losing has a larger impact on behaviour than winning, so if you’re serious about changing your behaviour, try an application that incurs critical costs. Examples include Beeminder, which takes US$5 from your credit card for every goal you don’t meet, and Forest, which provides you with the chance to grow a beautiful animated tree — or to watch it slowly wither and die — depending on whether or not you meet your technology goals.
Persistence is one of the hardest parts of accomplishing any new goal, from losing weight to learning how to cook.
Research suggests that capitalizing on social motivations — like the need to fit in — can encourage persistent behavioural change.
Constant connection to technology undermines happiness, relationships and productivity. Applications that take advantage of the latest insights from behavioural science can help us disconnect and get on with living our lives.