It’s Not You. Our Phones Are Designed to Addict Us

“I can’t stop looking at my phone!”. Has this thought ever popped up in your head after using your phone for a few hours and realized that you’ve got tasks pending for you to do?

You’re not alone! Today, there are over 2.5 billion smartphone users, and a lot of them find it difficult to put their phones down. If you’re like most people, your phone is probably within arm’s reach at this very moment, and the mere mention of it is making you want to check something.

Smartphones are one of the technologies that people specifically engineered to get us to spend time on them. They are designed to keep us engaged, and you don’t even realize it. In the word of Tristan Harris, a former Google’s design ethicist, who are now advocating for awareness of how tech companies profit off users’ attention, “In the 1970s, when you were just gossiping on the telephone, there weren\’t a hundred engineers on the other side of the screen who knew exactly how your psychology worked and orchestrated you into a double-bind with each other.”. “If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swiped over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into.”

Maybe this is why Steve Jobs- the founder of Apple who introduced the iPhone, restricted his children’s access to the products which his company made. When New York Times Technology reporter Nick Bilton asked him if his children liked the iPad, he answered, “They haven’t used it… We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

According to Harris, you can “fix” this situation by turning off all notifications, except for when a real human is trying to reach you. Usually, when you get a call or a text message, it’s because another person wants to communicate with you, but a lot of apps today simulate the feeling of that type of social interaction so that you will spend more time on their platform. When push notification(the notification that appears at your lock screen or the top of your phone screen even when you’re not using the app) were first introduced, they were designed to make you check your phone less by reducing the necessity to open your inbox every time an email arrives. But today, you can get notifications from any app on your phone – Shopee, Google Maps, Youtube et cetera.


Harris also implied that the reason why smartphones are so addictive, is mainly because the information that we are getting is random and unpredictable – like a slot machine. How do you refresh your Facebook or Instagram feed? You simply pull from the top of your screen and release it, just like pulling a slot machine lever. Phone and app companies are aware of this design choice.  Those apps can update their content automatically, but they gave you an illusion of control when you pull to refresh them. In the future, notifications can be delivered more healthily by bundling them as research shows that when phones deliver a batch of updates at scheduled times, it will reduce stress.

Another effective way is to grayscale your screen. Human eyes are sensitive to warm colours, for instance, the bright red colour. This is why many apps icon is bright and attractively warm colours. This is also why the notification dot on your icon is red. Thus, you can grayscale your screen to make things like this less appealing to your eyes. “There’s a reason why slot machines have bright colours and flashing lights and “ding ding ding ding ding”.


You could also rearrange and restrict your home screen to everyday tools that you’ll need to use (definitely NOT social media apps). Make sure that when you unlock your phone, the first thing that appears on your home screen is the tools that help you live your life. For example, you can have calendar, maps, notes, calculator and e-hailing apps on your home screen, while keeping the apps that will make you spend hours on them and then regret afterward hidden at the other page of the screen. Research shows that people rely on visual cues rather than internal cues to stop consuming something. A visual cue acts like a reminder that you’ve arrived at the endpoint. But many of the apps don’t have any “endpoint”. There’s no endpoint on YouTube, the queue of videos just keeps playing if you never clicked the pause button. Just because many apps don’t have an obvious endpoint, you’ll need to build and arrange a home screen that can help you to stay away from being distracted by those apps.


Big technology companies like Google and Apple are making an effort to help users to have a healthier relationship with our devices. If your Android phone is running Android 9.0(Pie) and above, you could download Google’s digital wellbeing apps from Play Store that lets you take a glance at how much time do you spend on your phone daily, set app time limits to remind you to take a break after some time using the app, customize app notifications and also a “wind-down” feature that changes the screen to black and white and silences notifications for you at night. You could also download the “YourHour” app from Play Store if your phone is not running Android Pie or Q.


Similarly, Apple developed a tool called “Screen Time” on iOS 12 that does similar things to help you spend time on your device wisely.


The key to having a healthier relationship with your smartphones, though, is to have control over what you want to see, what you want to read and what you want to do on your smartphones, and to not let them control you.

The final question is: What is worth your attention?


Written by, Teng Jun Siong

Edited by, Rayvathi a/p Theivindran


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