By John Fell
Over the last couple of years I have noticed an ever growing attachment to my ‘phone’. This beautiful little piece of tech that can enrich my life in so many ways. Unlimited access to information, social connections, songs, podcasts, games. Incidentally, why do we still call them phones? The amount of time I spend talking on it is minuscule compared to everything else. They really are the world in our pockets.
Being able to write emails and pay bills on the go gives me more quality time to spend with family and friends, more time to do my own workouts, to read and inspire myself. But this is a double edged sword. I also find it very hard to switch off from the constant demands of the business, the pleasure of connecting with friends and the lure of social media.
I write these words, not as an expert on the effects of screens or as someone who is in total control of his phone/screen use, but as someone who has made some changes to my habits, has felt the benefits and still has a long way to go. I don’t assume that you, the reader have exactly the same ‘relationship’ with your device and struggle with the same aspects of it that I do. I only hope that sharing some of the information I have learned recently and my own personal experience may be helpful to some.
My experience with screen time
Without ever having tracked my screen time, I just had a gut feeling that I was checking my phone more frequently than I needed to and spending too much of my precious family time looking at the screen instead of being there, in the moment with Ruth and the boys. I’d been reading a book by Dr Mary Aiken called The Cyber Affect about how human behaviour changes online and the effect that is having on our relationships, our shopping habits, our political systems and the minds of our children. It’s really thought provoking and I highly recommend it.
Then in September 2018 I watched a BBC Panorama documentary called ‘Smart Phones – The Dark Side’ in which the reporter Hilary Andersson speaks to tech insiders who reveal how social media companies use behavioural science to develop habit forming technology which can become highly addictive. Some of the messages really rang true for me. They spoke to the guy who invented the ‘endless scroll’ which was based on results of the ‘Endless Bowl’ of soup experiment. Not surprisingly, the subjects in the experiment ate significantly more soup when eating from a bowl which filled from the bottom automatically without the subjects realising it. Andersson also spoke to the girl who invented the ‘like’ button on Facebook who now regrets it due to the toll it ended up taking on her self esteem.
My interest was really piqued when the tech insider revealed he turns his phone onto ‘greyscale’ to reduce the enticing effects of the colours on his phone which are one of the many ways they draw us in. I thought, well if the guys who designed this technology are doing that then I’m going to try it too. Setting your phone to greyscale takes ALL of the colour out of your phone. Everything appears in black and white (or shades of grey). The greyscale setting is slightly different on iPhones and Android, but is easy to find in a couple of clicks.
I thought to myself, I’ll trial this for a week and see how it goes. I found the setting, switched it over to greyscale and then forgot about it for a while. The next time I checked my phone, it felt like a little part of me died inside. It was so boring to look at! I couldn’t believe how dull it looked, but more alarming to me was my internal reaction to that. I felt a small but noticeable level of disappointment as I swiped through the different apps (which were now much harder to distinguish). Even all my pictures were black and white. I was mildly horrified but also intrigued at my reaction to this change. It really highlighted to me just how much of a boost my exciting, colourful little device was giving me on a (previously) subconscious level.
I decided to frame this challenge to myself in the context of a dietary analogy. I have to use my phone in modern life in the same way I have to eat food to survive. I can’t just do without it. But in the same way it is possible to give up sugar (or at least, significantly reduce it) so to, I told myself I could give up colour on my phone. At least for a while anyway, until I recognised and tweaked my habits. This really worked for me. Over the course of the next few weeks I found I was less and less drawn to unconsciously checking it and began to think of it more as a tool for productivity – phone calls, email, txts, podcasts, web searching. Social media was much less appealing since it looks very boring in greyscale!
I ended up keeping my phone on greyscale for three months. I felt that was enough time for me to reset my habits and significantly reduce the amount of times I checked my phone each day. The fact that I couldn’t read my diary clearly and that every time I wanted to show someone a picture I would have to change the settings back to colour were the two things I found most annoying – but overall it was a very worthwhile experience for me. I don’t rule out doing it again in the future if I feel myself slipping.
Ask Yourself, Why?
The documentary ended with a challenge from the reporter. “The next time you go to check your phone” she said, “ask yourself…. why?” I love this question and continue to challenge myself to answer it whenever it occurs to me to check my phone. Do I need it to make a call, send a txt, check for an important email I’m waiting on, check the time? Or is it just a habit? Has it become my safety net, my default position the minute I am not face to face with another person? Perhaps I am trying to fill a little void of boredom, or distract myself from the present moment, or my train of thought, or pick myself up from feeling a bit low? Maybe if I check my phone there’ll be a message for me, proof that somebody, if not loves me, at least registers my existence enough to send a message or like a post.
David Gillespie, best selling author of a number of health related books points out that we are all susceptible to the need for approval (although he says that teenage girls are the group most affected) and that the likes and comments features on social media platforms play to this desire in potentially harmful ways. In his book ‘Teen Brain – Why screens are making your teenager depressed, anxious and prone to lifelong addictive illnesses’ he outlines the fact that the adolescent brain is extremely susceptible to developing addictive behaviours and that social media and gaming pose significant threats to the mental health of our current adolescent generation. I think this is a must read for every parent of a child under the age of 25yrs old. At the very least, listen to his conversation with Richard Fidler on ABC radio (podcast). The information he presents is startling. Here is a link to the podcast.
Gillespie outlines how the tech companies are taping into our hormonal reward pathways involving dopamine (which motivates us to chase rewards, too much of which is associated with anxiety) and serotonin (one of our feel good hormones, not enough of which is associated with depression) and how this can impair our impulse control system and lead to addictive behaviours.
Although Gillespie focuses his attention on the teenage brain, I think many of us can relate to the issues he raises. If you do too, here are some ideas that you may find helpful:
– Switch off all of your hand held devices and have a centrally placed basket or bowl somewhere in your home to put them at a certain time of the evening to allow you (and your kids) to wind down a least a couple of hours before bed time. Light exposure to the eyeball prevents cortisol levels (stress hormone) from dropping and can adversely affect your sleep quality.
– Take note of your screen time using the inbuilt setting on your iPhone or one of the free apps from the Android store.
– Turn off your push notifications for emails and texts and put your phone on silent. This allows you to proactively connect rather than being permanently in reaction mode.
– Ask yourself WHY? whenever you are about to check your phone. Only you know if the real reason is congruent to your long term goals and life’s purpose.
– Try greyscale for a day. Notice how it makes you feel. Is this good or bad for you? Only you know the answer. It’s not for me or anyone to decide for you. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment!
– Parents trying to convince their kids to spend less time on the screen, take note of your own habits. Children will mimic what they see rather than do what they are told.
These incredible little devices add so much value to our lives. Let’s use them in a way that helps us connect and grow in a healthy, grounded way.
Until next time,