As we are reaching the end of the year, we will soon see coverage summarizing the tech trends of 2018. When it comes to smartphones, no doubt, edge-to-edge displays, AI, ML, cameras will all make the top ten list and so will phone addiction.
Over the past 12 months we have seen vendors playing in the smartphone market, both at an OS or hardware level, come up with solutions to help us monitor and manage the time we spend on these devices. More recently, we have seen a couple of vendors pitch smaller form-factors with a more limited set of features. These new phones are positioned as a companion to your main smartphone for those times when you want to disconnect a little and be more in the moment.
As a concept, this is not at all different from what we experienced at the start of the smartphone market when people would still have a featurephone to use over the weekend. What is different though is the reason behind the trend. Back then smartphones were really more of a work thing, which meant having them with you all the time meant you were on email all the time and therefore on the clock 24/7. Getting that featurephone for the weekend was much more about taking a break from work than taking a break from technology. The promise these new devices are making is to allow you to free yourself from the grip of your smartphone which consumes too much of your time. But is it as simple as wanting to spend time on these screens?
Phones Do So Much, How Can We not Love Them?
I am not going to argue the relationship with our phones is a healthy one, but I will argue most of us do not really want any help. The point is that these phones do a lot for us today. They have come to replace so many other devices in our lives that it makes sense we spend more time on them: listening to music, taking pictures, watching TV shows…We can also do many of the tasks we used to do only on a PC: search, shop, email, game… So our time staring at the little screen has grown.
For many people, smartphones have become a productivity as well as an entertainment center. I took a quick look at my usage over the past seven days, and apparently, I picked up my phone on average 94 times, I receive on average 240 notification per day and my usage when I am not traveling is at least 40% lower than when I am away from a computer. Some of these notifications are from the doorbell or our home security cameras so not something that necessarily requires interaction on my part, but something that asks for attention nevertheless. When we dig a little deeper, however, it is fascinating to see how much of what we can do with the phone today we used to do not just with a different device but with a non-tech tool altogether. Over the past seven days, for instance, I spent 21 minutes using my phone as a wallet, 38 minutes using it as a camera, I also used it for one hour to navigate my way around the world, 39 minutes talking to someone over Facetime, 21 minutes filing my expenses, 19 minutes booking flights, 15 minutes shopping on Amazon and one hour and 52 minutes doing email. I don’t really feel sorry about any of this as I see the phone just as a tool consolidation effort. Had I done all those things with different devices there would have been no reason to say I was addicted to something.
We Do What We Want Not What We Should
The problem starts, at least for me, when I see that over the past week I spent over 8 hours on social media. Now part of it is work, part of it is information, but truth be told a lot of it is boredom. For me, and many others, the smartphone is no different to the TV. We used to watch TV or have the TV on to fill our time even when nothing was interesting to watch. The smartphone is like having access to that TV whenever and wherever you want to tune into the reality show that is social media or gaming or anything else that helps you fill a void.
This is where the addiction is, in that filler role that smartphones play. And it is hard to let go without experiencing some level of FOMO. Like any addiction, self-discipline is not always enough. I know too much chocolate is bad for me, and I can try and limit myself to one square, but it is so much easier when I do not buy any at all. This is the premise of these new phones like the Palm. They are the equivalent of you not buying the chocolate. One could set up limits for all the apps and tools available on the phone through one of the new features like Apple’s Screen Time. But that would be the equivalent of limiting yourself to one square knowing you have a whole bar of chocolate in the cupboard.
It might be sufficient for some, as long as you first admit you have a problem of course. But what happens when you get back to your main smartphones? Are you going to binge use it to make up for the lost time?
Smartwatches Give Me All the Help I Need
This is why learning to control your use, in my view, will have more long-term effects and in my case, smartwatches have really helped. Yes, I know given the numbers I just shared you are scared to think what my usage was like before!
Smartwatches allow me to take a break from my phone by preventing me from being sucked into the phone for longer than I need to be. Continuing the chocolate metaphor wearables are the equivalent of someone breaking up a square and giving it to me while hiding the rest of the chocolate.
All those notifications I receive are not always essential. The important ones like a text from my daughter, a call from my colleague or a flight change will come to my wrist, but an Instagram like, a Facebook post or a non-work email will not. Being able to prioritize what is time sensitive and what is not is a great help in cutting back on the number of times you unlock your phone. Getting the urgent stuff to your wrist also makes sure you do not live in eternal fear of missing something, which leads to picking up the phone more often than you need.
Of course, smartwatches are not a magic wand. Users need to spend some time deciding what they want to prioritize so that the watch does not duplicate the phone. I might be wrong, but using a smartwatch to tame phone usage requires an investment in understanding where the problem is. With the simpler phone, the risk of changing behavior to fit the new device is as strong as relapsing on the smartphone that is still in my pocket. In other words, if I switch my social media time to texting time because my simpler phone does not support apps, I am just changing my addiction not controlling it.