The tech world was atwitter this week and a slight pall was cast over CES with reports that an activist investor is calling on Apple to do something about the ‘smartphone addiction problem’. Let’s admit it: most of us are addicted, in some shape or form, to our pocket computers. No one entity is to blame here. It’s partially our fault and it’s partially industry’s fault. And the responsibility lies just as much with Facebook, Twitter, Snap, all sorts of dumb games, and pretty much any app that abuses ‘notifications’. Solving this issue doesn’t require lawsuits, new regulations, apps that tell us how much time we’re spending on these devices, or any particularly fancy technology. It does require some common step approaches, both on the user side and the industry side. So here’s my prescription.
Step 1 is to admit we have a problem. I’d imagine most of us would admit we both spend too much time on our screens, and engage in some degree of unseemly behavior. We’re distracted. We look at our phones in the middle of conversations, during meals, at movies, in bed, and at our kids’ school performances. Many work tasks take longer to complete because of constant distraction.
Industry must take responsibility too. Yes, Apple, Samsung, and others have made the hardware and capabilities in the OS that foment this addictive behavior. I’m less concerned about ‘substitutive’ use (for example, reading a book on a kindle or watching a TV show or YouTube video on a tablet or a phone) than I am with the types of apps or capabilities that cause near constant checking of devices and interruptions. The culprits for most of this: messaging (texting, Snap, etc.), and, even worse, notifications. Notifications have gotten out of control — and are a big cause of the constant pinging and checking.
This problem is solvable. It will require concrete action and behavior modification on behalf of users, and some recognition and steps by industry, too. Here are my suggested steps, for both users and industry.
Here are some suggestions on what users might do to reduce screen time and modify what, for some of us, is addictive behavior.
- Put yourself on a diet. It’s the New Year. Like other resolutions or those extra trips to the gym that happen in January, resolve to spend less time looking at the phone screen. This might mean pro-active steps, such as going for an hour or two or completing a work task, or even a leisure activity such as playing a game or watching a TV show…without checking your phone.
- Reduce the opportunity. If it’s always with you, always on, and constantly pinging and beeping…you’re gonna check it. This is the gerbil-like gene in all of us. So, reduce the opportunity by banning the phone at mealtimes, at bedtime, and during other important moments, such as family conversations, helping the kids with homework, and so on. And, remember there’s something on the phone called Settings. You can put on Do Not Disturb, Airplane Mode, Silent, etc. You can turn off notifications or manage them more effectively. Workplaces can play a role here too. Companies could set rules for phone use during meetings, and other ‘codes of conduct.’
- Set some examples. The focus of news this week was on teenage phone addiction – but behavior in many adults is just as bad. We need to start setting better examples. When we check our phones at meals, while in the middle of a conversation with a friend, or during a lull in the monthly poker game, we’re setting a bad example. Our teenagers will think this is OK, and so will their younger siblings.
- Make Some Rules. The low-hanging fruit here is banning phone use (or even presence) during meals, and other important ‘family time’ – conversation, games, homework help, etc. A little tougher is setting rules for your teenager while they’re in their room, behind closed doors, doing Lord knows what. But it can start with ‘phone out of the room while you’re doing homework, practicing your instrument’, or after 11 p.m., etc. Schools have actually been reasonably effective at setting rules. We should be able to do the same at home.
I’m sure there will be a raft of apps that monitor screen time. But this sort of defies what should be common sense stuff, like the calorie count in the donut shop. You know it’s bad for you and when is too much. Still, there are some steps industry can do to help.
- Improved ‘do not disturb’ type settings and capabilities. One recommendation here is what I call the ‘homework’ or ‘work’ button. When activated, texts, alerts, notifications, and so on do not get through. And, importantly, those trying to text you know that it’s on, so there’s less ‘attempting’, and you don’t fall victim to the ‘you didn’t respond to my text’ note. This would have to be widely adopted and encouraged, so it’s used and respected. If your teen is the only kid using this feature, you know how that’s going to go.
- Smarter Notifications. Notifications and alerts are a major contributor to the overload. I’ll bet you could turn off notifications for half your apps and you wouldn’t be any worse off. Also, app makers need to show some commitment to reducing notifications. And key players such as Facebook and Twitter need to dial it down and provide easier tools for users to reduce or eliminate notifications. This is also an area where AI could play a role.
- Better Training/Education. I find that the training and user education capabilities related to phone use are woefully inadequate. Here’s where industry could be more proactive, prodded by some of what we’ve seen this week. Apple, Samsung, the OS crowd, and the messaging/social media crowd should make it easier to change settings, turn off notifications, etc. There should be better and more accessible tools and training videos to help users how to manage this. Maybe users should be required to watch these when purchasing a new device. With that $1,000 device that’s always with you and always on, comes some responsibility, too.
I’m hoping that industry and users can be mature enough to admit that although these smartphones and their apps are truly exciting, there are some disturbing trends. I’d rather us be proactive now, rather than regulators or others needlessly step in, and employ the tech equivalent of Mayor Bloomberg’s Soda Ban.