Smartphones are driving us to distraction. Here’s help.

By Mike Elgan Oct 16th 2017
Smartphones are driving us to distraction. Here’s help.

Smart people are starting to cancel their social accounts and turn off smartphones. (Maybe that’s why they’re so smart.)

Ho-hum. Another year, another crop of amazing smartphones.

The latest advancements come from Apple and Google. The new iPhone 8 line and iPhone X phones, as well as Google’s new Pixel phones, are blistering fast, offer near-DSLR-quality cameras and perform a growing range of cool stunts, such as supporting augmented reality.

If you were to ask the public if they want all this power and ability, they’d probably respond, “Well, yes! Absolutely!”

But if you were to ask them if the newest phones solve any problems people have with their lives, the answer would be, “Well, no. Absolutely not!”

In fact, smartphones are making our biggest problems worse.

Most professionals I talk to struggle with work/life balance. They suffer from scattered demands on their attention. They want to accomplish more in their lives.

Not only are smartphones failing to help solve these problems; they’re actually making them worse.

The growing Smartphone Crisis

With each passing day, it’s becoming clearer that smartphones are making people stupid. That’s the blunt way to put it.

More accurately, smartphones are increasingly addictive and distracting, and as a result it’s getting harder for people to pay attention to what they’re doing.

A new perspective is emerging in Silicon Valley — from individual technologists, not from the major companies — about what smartphones are doing to us. Phones and, even more, mobile social apps and sites are influencing us in countless ways without our awareness.

Smartphones give us a “toxic” addiction and we’re “wasting our lives” on them.

Technology is “hijacking our minds.”

Sites such as Facebook are waging a war on free will.

The Guardian newspaper last week published an interview with the creator of the Facebook “Like” button, Justin Rosenstein, in which he admitted that his creation is part of a huge problem.

Rosenstein doesn’t allow himself to use Reddit or Snapchat, and he even restricts his use of Facebook.

More telling, as soon as he bought his new iPhone, he instructed his assistant to lock it down with parental controls to prevent him from downloading apps.

Rosenstein is trying to avoid what is increasingly the new normal when it comes to mental state. Experts call it “continuous partial attention.”

Rosenstein says “everyone is distracted all the time.” And this state of mind measurably lowers IQs and productivity and emerges even when smartphones are nearby but not in use.

Are these proclamations going too far? Maybe. But consider this shocking comparison: A study conducted last year by Voucher Cloud found that subjects spend an average of just two hours and 53 minutes doing productive work each day.

An unrelated study by Dscout found that the average smartphone user spends two hours and 25 minutes on his or her phone each day. (“Heavy” smartphone users average three hours and 45 minutes per day.)

The amount of time spent on phones grows every year. The amount of time doing work probably declines. Smartphones are driving a trend where frivolity is replacing productivity.

(Part of the blame goes to the apps we use, of course — especially the social apps. But it’s smartphones that put those apps in our hands 24/7.)

The mechanism behind the Smartphone Crisis is easy to understand. We live in an attention economy, and tech companies are in heated competition with one another to acquire our time and attention. In this Darwinian struggle, the most addictive and distracting products and services survive and thrive and come to dominate.

Companies such as Facebook brag to their shareholders about the growing number of hours users spend on their sites and apps. All social sites are trying to hold their own against Facebook by being as addictive as they can be.

YouTube grabs a huge amount of attention, and all the video sites are trying to defend against YouTube.

And just as social sites, news sites, game apps, music apps and others learn to be more distracting and addictive, along comes augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality.

The rate at which smartphones and their apps grow more addictive and distracting keeps growing. Our innate ability to resist those addictions and distractions doesn’t really grow. As former Google product manager Tristan Harris says, technology is “better at hijacking your instincts than you are at controlling them.”

As a result, smartphones are affecting our minds. Smartphones have come to occupy what’s called a “privileged attentional space,” comparable to the sound of our own names. Working with a smartphone nearby is attentionally similar to working while co-workers are standing there talking about you by name. It’s hard to focus.

The problem exists not only on the individual level, but on a massive scale. Both Rosenstein and Harris believe that distracted smartphone users are collectively making business and political decisions worse, and eroding productivity.

Harris told Wired that “technology steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day,” a bigger influence than even religion or government.

What to do about the Smartphone Crisis

The Smartphone Crisis reminds me of the current food-related health crisis. And the solution to the problem is also comparable.

Before the Industrial Revolution, an unacceptably high percentage of the population starved, suffered nutritional deficits or died from unsafe or spoiled food.

So we industrialized the food system, and for a long time it was beneficial. But then industrialization went too far. Junk food was too cheap, easy and addictive, and now we have a health crisis caused by diet.

Similarly, smartphones initially were all good. They solved problems and made our lives better. Over time, it’s been dawning on us that too much of a good thing is wrecking our health and happiness.

The food industry responded to the health crisis by evolving, and offering healthier choices.

Likewise, we need the smartphone industry to do a better job offering anti-distraction, non-addictive smartphone solutions.

Just as enterprises offer employees incentives, gym memberships and training around health and addiction, so should they offer help and guidance around smartphone addiction.

I would love to see new norms or policies emerge in enterprises where it becomes unacceptable to bring smartphones into meetings. Business meetings could offer a moment of attention in our otherwise distracted work day.

The latest Silicon Valley trend in dealing with food-related health problems is fasting. Some prominent technologists are going eight days in a row without food, and enjoying the health benefits.

I’m predicting that the newest trend will be widespread smartphone fasting — going without a smartphone for varying lengths of time.

One way is all the way: getting rid of your smartphone and not buying a new one. Instead, buy a great camera and cheap feature phone and carry those.

Another option is to schedule data connectivity: carry the phone, but allow yourself just a few hours a day of being connected.

Yet another approach, which is growing in popularity already, is to delete all your social networking accounts, and thereby remove one source of compulsion with the smartphone.

Enterprises will (and should) organize voluntary smartphone fasts for the benefit of employees and company productivity, as well as provide training and coaching for addicts and prevention programs for the as-yet unafflicted.

These trends are coming, and we need help from Silicon Valley companies in general and smartphone companies in particular.

The days of focusing all energy on making tech products more addictive are numbered.

As smartphone addiction and distraction increasingly disrupt lives and ruin careers, the industry needs to give us help — or we’ll help ourselves by canceling our accounts and getting rid of the products that are causing the damage.

Silicon Valley: Speeds and feeds and cameras are great. But start helping us with our actual problems, or we’ll stop using your products.

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