Take back control of your smartphone

There is no doubt that smartphones have changed our lives. But are they also changing our brains? Recent research suggests they could be.

A study published earlier this year in the international journal Addictive Behaviours found some evidence of physical changes in the brain related to smartphone addiction (SPA).

It found that people meeting the definition of SPA (excessive and dysfunctional smartphone use that resembles addictive behaviour), showed differences in some parts of their brain when studied using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“Given the widespread use and increasing popularity of smartphones, the present study challenges assumptions towards the harmlessness of smartphones, at least in individuals that may be at increased risk for developing addictive behaviours.”

Other studies in the past have shown that the mere presence of your smartphone drains your attention, affecting both working memory and the ability to problem solve, even if the phone is off, as opposed to being in another room.

Recent years have seen all sorts of debate rage about smartphone usage. In 2018, the French banned mobiles in schools, sparking debate as to whether we should do the same here in New Zealand.  But it’s not just children who can have trouble avoiding the lure of the bright lights of that little screen.  Adults can really struggle to keep their eyes off it too, even if they aren’t technically ‘addicted’. In fact,  Nokia research (from 2013) suggests people check their phone up to 150 times per day, for all sorts of reasons from setting an alarm, to sending a message.

The problem is the Silicon Valley magicians know just how to grab – and hold - our attention and they do this by using the same techniques as used in the gambling industry. They target the same parts of our brains as slot machines and cocaine by giving us a reward or a dopamine ‘hit’. They want to hold our attention, so they can get more advertising in front of us. That means more profit for them.

“Unless the advertisement-based profit model changes, companies like Facebook will continue to do everything they can to keep your eyes glued to the screen as often as possible,” Trevor Haynes, a research technician in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School wrote in his blog Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.

“And by using algorithms to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuitry, they stack the cards—and our brains—against us,” he said.

He says studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death.

But there are ways to take back control of your mobile and make sure it’s working for you and not the other way around. The Centre for Humane Technology - set up by a group of former tech insiders and CEOs - offers these valuable tips.

1. Turn off all notifications except from people.

Most notifications are generated by machines, not actual people and keep luring us back in to check our phones. Visit Settings > Notifications and turn off all notifications, banners, and badges, except from apps where real people want your attention

2. Go grey (scale).

Make those bright shiny apps a little less alluring by setting your phone to grayscale.

Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut (bottom) > Colour Filters. (NB: This was Settings > Accessibility > Vision > Greyscale on my Android). Then you can triple-tap the home button to toggle grayscale on and off and get the colour back when you need it.

3. Keep your home screen for key tools only

...like maps, camera, calendar etc. That way, you won’t be so easily tempted by a quick look at Facebook when you really just needed to find directions on Google Maps.

4. Launch other apps by typing

Type in the app you want to open rather than getting to them from the home screen. That requires just enough effort to make us stop and think, “do I really want to do this?”

On Android you can use the Search Box on your home screen.

iOS: For best results, turn off Siri Suggestions (Settings > Siri & Search > Siri Suggestions to off)

5. Charge your device outside the bedroom.

This way, you can wake up without getting sucked into your phone before you even get out of bed.

6. Go cold turkey: Remove social media from your phone.

If you really want to use your phone less, remove all the major social media apps. Then train yourself to use them from your computer only (if at all).

Note: You can delete the Facebook app and still get some specific features, i.e. Facebook Messenger for messages.

7. Call instead of texting.

Studies show that it’s common for people to misinterpret text messages, while voice is less likely to be misinterpreted.  Ringing or recording a quick voice message is often faster and less stressful than typing out each letter too. Plus, it doesn’t require your full visual attention. Or make use of the emoticons to limit your time typing messages on the phone and to help convey more meaning.

Furthermore, ironically you can use apps to help you set boundaries on your phone, or just help you use it less. Things like Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator will actually remove the
Facebook newsfeed and blur the sidebars and notification so you won’t get distracted. Check out more useful app suggestions from the Centre for Humane Technology.

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