If you're not paying for the product, YOU are the product
"The smartphone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from."
I was on the tube last Friday, it was rush hour, and the metropolitan was about as full as it can be during a national lockdown. I spent my journey listening to music, staring out of the window, and stealing glances left and right. I nearly burst out laughing so many times because I noticed that one way or another, we all had our phones in our hands - As though they were (and are) our lifelines. Some people were scrolling, some were staring, and others were aimlessly tapping their password in and checking for notifications. One way or another - Our attention was elsewhere. Physically we were on the tube, yet mentally and emotionally, we were all miles apart.
For the most part, I don't believe any of us realise just how much we rely on our phones and how we enable them to separate us from our current reality. Nor do we notice the brain fog they cause and how this fog hijacks the emotions that we'd prefer not to feel.
We feel alone so, we go on Instagram and study other people's lives. Adverts come on TV so, we watch video's on Facebook to halt our boredom. We feel hurt so, we order ourselves some shiny new clothes to mask the pain. Our modern world has been curated in such a way that we're able to avoid our emotions without even realising it. It's become the norm to have our phones with us wherever we go, able to scroll through the pain until it goes or until we're so distracted by adverts and statuses that our own lives have fallen to the back of our minds.
I originally wrote this post to document my experience of being without my phone for a week. I switched my phone off because, to be honest, I was aching for some time to be able to think solely about myself. At times, I can find my phone physically and mentally demanding - No matter what, there's always a text to reply to, somebody to ring, an email to remove, or a notification to swipe. Without sounding dramatic, I find my phone relentless at times and, sometimes I need to hit the pause button and turn the thing off. So, as I was writing up the post, I began to wonder why I find my phone so taxing and if other people feel the same.
So, are we addicted to our phones, or is it just a light-hearted joke that we make at the dinner table? It's not the latter – We are addicted to our phones. Although there was a part of me that already knew this, I naively dismissed that people (technology creators, app designers, psychologists, etc...) design our phones in a way that enhances and promotes addiction. The more I read and researched about phone addiction, the sicker I began to feel. I felt sad because it feels as though we've been sold smartphones whilst only knowing half the story. To me, there's an injustice in the fact that we've been sold phones without knowing just how toxic they can be. It's as if we're in a gigantic game made up of consumers and technology creators that we never knew we had a part in. Continually putting our hobbies on the back burner to spend more and more time scrolling.
HOW THEY KEEP US ADDICTED
Apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter replicate techniques that the gambling industry uses. Alike slot machines, we can pull and refresh our news feeds an infinite number of times until we strike gold and see a story or photo that we like. In doing this, dopamine gets released within our brains (essentially a chemical that makes us feel good) which keeps us coming back for more, thus an endless cycle of increased screen time is created.
These app designers use resources like 'google analytics behaviour flow report' to understand what keeps us on an app and what makes us leave. They're watching everything that you click on, everything that you like, and everything that you dislike – They see it all and as soon as they get an idea of what you like to see, they will personalise your experience to keep you scrolling and searching. When you eventually put your phone down, they start sending you 'push notifications' (e.g '@username recently uploaded to their story') to get you back on your phone, handing over your precious time.
Moreover, some studies show that these apps could alter our brain structure - Increasing levels of anxiety and depression. As well as this, they can alter and affect our sleeping patterns and quality (there's a reason why people tell you not to go on your phone before bed).
In 2019, RescueTime evaluated the phone usage of eleven thousand of their customers from the previous year. On average these users checked their phones a total of FIFTY-EIGHT times a day (responding to general notifications e.g., a text, missed call, and/or a push notification). Of the fifty-eight times that these people checked their phones, seventy percent of those times lasted for less than two minutes, twenty-five percent of those times were anywhere between two minutes and ten minutes AND five percent of those times were for more than ten minutes. On average, the total time these users spent on their phones equalled to three hours and fifteen minutes per day which may not sound like much, but it adds up to more than thirty-five days per year.
I don’t believe that our phones are inherently bad. I understand that the smartphone is an invention that has created so many opportunities for people and the modern world. It makes everything so much more accessible and I don't believe that as a society it would benefit us to completely live without them (after having them in our lives). We're able to connect with and see the faces of the people we love, even if they live miles away (something to especially appreciate in recent times). We can capture moments and memories with a click of a button, able to easily access them whenever we want to. We can read stories from across the world, create artistic and inspiring content, they help to keep people safe and so many other things. However, as much as I appreciate the beauty within the substance that smartphones offer us, I recognise that we could all use them in a way that benefits us and our life. We could utilize them so that we are in control, as opposed to them controlling us.
My experience digital detoxing
I decided to turn my phone off on New Year's Eve due to feeling a mixture of deflated and overwhelmed. With it being New Year's Eve, I felt as though it was the perfect time to detox and welcome the New Year in with no outside distractions.
I woke on New Year's Day feeling energized due to (accidentally) falling asleep on the sofa at 11 pm - Only half a bottle of prosecco in. So, feeling motivated and inspired, I decided to spend the first day of the year exploring Hyde Park and London.
I took my phone with me (in case I got kidnapped lol) but spent the day in a sort of digital detox bliss. Feeling like a new-age hippy I read "eat, pray, love" on the tube but mostly watched the everchanging buildings out of the windows. When I arrived at Hyde Park corner, I was able to explore and give my full concentration to the physical world. After a stroll, I decided to venture out of Hyde Park and walk to Oxford Street, continually amusing myself by using physical maps for a sense of direction (I tried to do this to find Buckingham Palace but, my sense of direction isn't great at the best of times and finding one of the biggest tourist monuments in the UK is not within my skillset). Anyway, I somehow found my way to Oxford Street and hopped on the (wrong) tube (finally, I lost my "I got on the wrong tube" virginity). This increased the length of my journey tenfold; yet one wrong tube, a walk, a bus, and a correct tube later, I finally made my way back home.
Admittedly, none of this would have happened if I'd had my phone to use but, I appreciated it. It made me pay more attention to my surroundings and the people around me and made my life feel a little more romantic, like a rom-com (all I needed was a puddle to splash on me at the bus stop and I would have nailed it).
My experience has made me realise just how much I rely on my phone for everyday mundane tasks. Removing my phone out of the scenario makes said tasks way more interesting and challenges my brain (which is surely a good thing?). I've never considered myself to be addicted to my phone as it's not something that I constantly use, but since writing this and doing my research, (as much as I hate to admit it) I probably am addicted a little bit. I'm working on incorporating changes into my daily life to remove my phone bit by bit and creating a healthier relationship with it that benefits me and my life.