Addicted to Your Phone? There’s Help for That

LIKE pretty much everyone these days, Susan Butler stares at her smartphone too much. Unlike most everyone, she took action, buying a $195 ring from a company called Ringly, which promises to “let you put your phone away and your mind at ease.”

Ringly does this by connecting its rings to a smartphone filter so that users can silence Gmail or Facebook notifications while preserving crucial alerts, like text messages from a babysitter, which cause the ring to light up or vibrate.

“Hopefully it will keep some distance between my phone and my hand,” said Ms. Butler, 27, who lives in Austin, Tex., and is a technology consultant for small businesses.

Given how quickly cellphones have taken over our lives, it’s easy to forget that they are still a relatively new technology. The first iPhone came out eight years ago, and today a little more than half the American population has a smartphone, according to eMarketer.

Yet already people spend close to three hours a day looking at a mobile screen — and that excludes the time they spend actually talking on the phones.

In a recent survey of smartphone use by Bank of America, about a third of respondents said they were “constantly” checking their smartphones, and a little more than two-thirds said that they went to bed with a smartphone by their side. Those habits have prompted enough soul searching that a slew of new companies see a business opportunity in helping people cut back.

“Technology has evolved so quickly that we have spiraled out of control and nobody has stopped to think about how this is going to impact our lives,” said Kate Unsworth, the founder of a British company, Kovert, that also makes high-tech jewelry to filter out everything but the most urgent stuff.

Many of these distraction-reducing products fall into the growing “wearable technology” niche. Smartwatches like the Apple Watch are designed to encourage more glancing and less phone checking. Last month Google and Levi’s announced plans for a line of high-tech clothes that will allow people to do things like turn off a ringing phone by swiping their jacket cuff.

“If there is a chance to enable the clothes that we already love to help us facilitate access to the best and most necessary of this digital world while maintaining eye contact with the person we’re eating dinner with, this is a real value,” said Paul Dillinger, Levi’s head of global product innovation.

An application called Offtime limits customers’ access to apps they overuse and logs their activity to produce charts on how much time they spend on their phones. Another, called Moment, encourages people to share their phone use with friends to compete in a game of who can look at their phone the least. And a New York designer recently completed a crowdfunding campaign for the Light Phone, a credit-card-size phone that does nothing but make and receive phone calls and “is designed to be used as little as possible.”

Perhaps most radical is the NoPhone, a $12 piece of plastic that looks like a smartphone but actually does nothing. Van Gould, an art director at a New York advertising agency who moonlights as head of the nascent venture, said he and his partners had sold close to 3,200 NoPhones, which they market as a security blanket for people who want to curb their phone addiction but are afraid to leave home without something to hold on to.

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Even though many are doubtless bought as gags, “Most people don’t think about phone addiction as a real thing until you’re like, ‘O.K., they’re buying a piece of plastic because they are worried about their friend,’ ” Mr. Gould said.

Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist and neuroscience professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said, “You have a population that is starting to say, ‘Wait, we love all this technology but there seems to be a cost — whether it’s my relationship or my work or my safety because I’m driving and texting.’ ”

In the days before apps, you searched online when you wanted something, and that was that. But now that the Internet is increasingly mobile and companies are more sophisticated about tracking users’ history and preferences, technology is less about “pulling,” through Google searches, and more about “pushing,” through smartphone notifications that are impossible to ignore because they cause our phones to light up and go ding.

Some products are trying to find a balance, like Google Now, a kind of digital assistant that uses data like location, Gmails and browsing activity to predict what a user might want next. Part of the idea is to bother you only when you need it. “If I’m about to forget my kid’s birthday I want the phone to scream at me until I do something about it,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of products.

This also makes business sense. The more people trust Google to navigate their lives, the more they’ll use apps like Google Calendar and Gmail. And the more Google understands its users, the more it can fine-tune its advertising engine.

Mr. Pichai’s philosophy is to give people lots of choices and let them figure it out by themselves. “We need to design products which are genuinely centered around users,” Mr. Pichai said, “and then there is a line by which users choose to live their lives. It’s their choice, and I want to be careful not to be prescriptive.”

But smartphones are a potent delivery mechanism for two fundamental human impulses, according to Paul Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas: our quest to find new and interesting distractions, and our desire to feel that we have checked off a task.

“With these devices you can get that sense of accomplishment multiple times a minute,” he said. “The brain gets literally rewired to switch — to constantly seek out novelty, which makes putting the phone down difficult.”

Like many of us, when Ms. Butler comes out of a meeting or a doctor’s appointment, she finds herself craving social media updates. She also had a nagging habit of opening a website, closing it, then opening it right back up in the hope that something new would appear. Addiction or not, it was enough for her to seek help from Ringly.

Mr. Atchley, for one, is skeptical. Addiction is an intensely personal matter, he said, and successful treatment is about having the resolve to control our demons — not outsourcing them to message filters.

In technology, as in life, a little willpower goes a long way.

Source: New York Times

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