Dumb Down Your Smartphone

February 5, 2021 Perry Landers

At the beginning of 2021, I set a goal to get my cell phone addiction under control. It’s a change I know I’ve needed to make for a while, but the start of the new year seemed like the right time to do it. I knew if I wanted to accomplish my other goals for the year (publish a book, be more present to the moment, etc.), I’d have to radically change my relationship with my phone. I spent too much time scrolling aimlessly instead of giving my time to worthier pursuits.

As I was doing some reflection on the impact of my cell phone on various areas of my life, I started wondering how it might impact my health, so I began doing research. The results? Not pretty. However, they did give me more motivation to make a change.

Here’s what I found.

We’re All Addicted

A lot of us are addicted to our phones even if we don’t recognize it. The statistics are well-documented and, quite frankly, mind-blowing. 2 out of 3 people show signs of cell phone addiction–which has physical effects on the mind and body just like alcohol or drug addiction.

Don’t think you have it? Here’s a quick 15-question test developed by David Greenfield, PhD, of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. According to Greenfield, if you answer “yes” to five or more questions, you likely have a problematic relationship with your phone. Take 20 seconds to take the test then report back.

Here are some statistics about the amount of time we spend with our phones:

  • Americans spend an average of 5.4 hours on their mobile phones daily.
  • Social media is responsible for 2 hours and 24 minutes of global internet time spent online by an average user daily.
  • We touch our cell phones 96 times per day. That’s once every 10 minutes.
  • 85% of people will check their phones while spending time with family or friends.
  • 75% of users admit they have texted at least once while driving.

Your Addiction is Designed

If you’re addicted to your phone, it’s not completely your fault. Yes, you have control (which, I’ll get to later in this blog), but your phone is intentionally designed to keep your attention. Tristan Harris is a Google Design Ethicist and has written extensively about how phones and apps are designed to hold our attention so that companies can run ads and ultimately profit from our responsiveness. You can check out an article written by him here or this illuminating five-minute video to get a full grasp of how it works.

The short scientific explanation is that every notification or ding on your phone releases dopamine—which gives us feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as a part of our body’s reward system. Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed, CEAP, RYT, CHC, a life and wellness coach at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont Healthcare explains:

“When we check our phones, our brains release a small amount of dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to take action, and each time we hear a notification, we check our device. The problem is this dopamine boost is temporary and leads to a letdown. Our brains want more dopamine, which triggers the habit of checking our phones constantly throughout the day.”

How Smartphone Addiction Impacts Your Health

The scary part is that smartphones are relatively new inventions, so we only have a short time frame through which to view our phone’s impact on our health. There is no telling what research will say 20-30 years from now. However, here’s what we know now:

  • Sleep interference. If you’re using your cell phone right before bed, you’re sabotaging your sleep. Your phone emits blue light, which your brain interprets as daylight. This disrupts your circadian rhythm and makes it more difficult fall asleep. The importance of sleep for your overall well-being can’t be oversold. Poor sleep has been linked to heart disease, stroke, weight gain, mental health issues, cancer, decreased immune function and more.
  • Increase in stress and anxiety. The constant barrage of notifications from calls, texts, “urgent emails,” and social media updates keep us in a heightened state of alertness which leads to chronic stress and anxiety. Some stress is good but being in a constant state of stress has been linked to inflammation and a host of other health issues.
  • Smartphones are rewiring our brains. Thanks to our cell phones and the abundance of information to which we have rapid access, our attention spans are getting shorter. In 2000, our attention span averaged 12 seconds. Just 15 years later, our attention span had dropped to eight seconds. For reference, goldfish have longer attention spans at nine seconds.
  • Interference with physical activity. A 2013 study of college students found that those with high cell phone usage were more sedentary and less fit. Have you ever said to yourself “I wish I had more time to workout” or “I just don’t have the energy to workout”? Remember, the average American spends about 5.4 hours per day using their phone. High phone usage can deplete the time and energy we have to give toward physical activity or other healthy behaviors.
  • Increase in feelings of isolation and depression. While researchers are still determining why the link exists, studies show that adolescents who are dependent on or addicted to their smartphones are more likely to show signs of depression and loneliness.

How to Take Control

What can we do to combat our smartphone addictions? This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good start. Here are a few things you can try this week:

  1. Turn off notifications for all of your apps except for phone calls. Remember, those dings and notifications release dopamine and keep you coming back for more.
  2. Remove distraction-based apps from your home screen or from your phone entirely. Tristan Harris, Google’s Design Ethicist, suggests only keeping only tools on your phone. Apps like Maps, Uber and DoorDash would be considered tools. Apps like Instagram, Words with Friends and TikTok would be considered entertainment.
  3. Delete social media from your phone. We didn’t have time to fully discuss how apps like Instagram and Facebook are specifically designed to get you addicted, but they are. Take them off your phone.
  4. Grayscale your phone. Our brains are attracted to bright, colorful objects. According to Harris, going greyscale “removes positive reinforcements and dampens that urge to keep loading up social media feeds or mobile games.” Here are directions for doing so based on your cell phone model.
  5. Put your phone away at least 30 minutes before bed. Health experts say 30 minutes, but I would suggest trying for at least an hour before bed. Read a book, practice mindfulness or have a conversation with a roommate or family member instead. The damage your phone does to your sleep and the health consequences of poor sleep isn’t worth it.
  6. Take a phone vacation. Choose a day of the week or an extended period of time and turn your phone off. You can tell your loved ones what you’re doing and that they needn’t worry if they can’t get a hold of you. Part of the addiction comes from our feeling that the world will not go on if we’re not attached to our phones. Turning your phone off will show you that it will, and you might find you actually enjoy not being attached to your phone!

I’ve gray-scaled my phone, removed social media and have made it a goal to put my phone away by 10 p.m. every night. I’m still a work in progress and have days when I’m constantly picking up my phone, but overall, I’ve decreased my screen time and I’ve found myself with more time for reading and writing. Fighting phone addiction is hard, intentional work—but I think will be worth it.

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