It is an age old pattern where the older generation finds the younger generation lazy, ungrateful, irresponsible or without manners. The way that is manifesting in our time is with one exclamation I hear some version of all the time, “these young people are always on their phones!” Which is true but frankly, so are older people. And often, more egregiously than the youth they like to complain about. A lot of this is best explained by Bane in the Dark Knight Rises
You see, for people around 30 and below, we were born into the internet and it’s always been there. For people older than that, this rapid technological change has only come later in life. For the tech savvy youth, we have developed coping mechanisms for technology and ways of compartmentalising what apps we use when and for what. For the older generation this change has come so much faster than any other technological shift in history that developing some coping skills on the fly has been nearly impossible especially if this change has come while getting married, having kids, maintaining a career, a social life and the other thousand things that come with adulthood.
DISCLAIMER: I want to be clear that the smartphone/social media use is still a problem for Millenials and Gen Z, precisely because we were born into it. Consequently the problem is a much deeper one. It leads to loneliness, anxiety, social issues and appears to affect young girls much more negatively than young boys. I will dedicate a post to this in the future but given the depth of the issue I want to start here with some tactical, quick ways that people of all ages can use to manage their technology use.
The speed at which these changes have come are unlike any other technology in history and therefore the ability to create rules and etiquette around them has been nearly impossible. What I’m aiming to do here is merely establish some that can help us mentally, physically and socially.
1) Turn off your notifications
The default setting when you receive your new smartphone or when you download a new app is for all of the notifications to be on. This is once again because the metric for most apps and technology is engagement, which is how long you spend using it. Notifications are a way to reach out to you in the middle of what you’re doing and say “hey! look over here!!”
To a company selling a product or ad space, notifications being on by default mode is perfectly logical. But for the user, it makes no sense. Why would you want every app in your phone (most of which you almost never use) be able to hijack your attention whenever they want? The default setting for you, should be OFF. Apps must get past a few hurdles before reaching the status of having notifications:
a) Do I need to hear from this app outside of when I want to?
b) Will me not checking the notification for 3 days have adverse effects?
c) Will any emergencies come through this app?
Outside of the phone app, text messages and the calendar/reminders apps, very few will meet these requirements (yes I excluded email on purpose). So if they don’t meet these, go into your settings —> notifications and turn them off. And for news apps, I recommend getting rid of them entirely (see here for the reason why)
This also includes the sounds on your notifications. The default setting on most phones and apps is for all of the sounds to be ON. Again the default for you should be OFF. My recommendation is to have everything off except for vibration on the phone app so you can feel if someone is calling. One of the rudest things people do today is when they get a text or a phone call while talking to someone else, they immediately rush to see who it is or what it could be. This is almost never the intent, but for the other person in the conversation, it holds the subtle implication that there’s potentially something more important than this conversation and that you’d rather be involved in that instead.
I think we’d all like to believe we are more sophisticated than dogs but in reality, after enough time with smartphones, we’ve been trained that when the little bell goes off, something that will make us feel good is potentially waiting for us. It’s not a dog treat, but maybe it’s a like on a post, or a news story that lets us feel outraged or it’s another friend asking us to do something. Most of the time it’s hacking our desire to feel socially validated in some way, which we yearn for a hundred times more than a dog wants a treat.
What does make us more sophisticated than dogs however, is our thumbs. So use them to flip that switch on the side of your phone to silent.
2) Delete all your social media apps off your phone
Many of the social apps we love (or hate) today started out as websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. (Funny aside here, YouTube actually started out as a dating website, not a video sharing platform).
But since the introduction of the smartphone and specifically the iPhone, these companies have devoted most of their time to optimising the features and user experience for mobile devices, not for the desktop. And since then, our time on these platforms has grown every year but almost all of that increase has come just on mobile devices. This has ended up to where now the average person spends over 6 hours a day engaging with social and digital and social media with over half of that time coming on mobile devices.
I’m not advocating deletion of your social media accounts per se (you should however delete any accounts you decide do more harm than good), but rather just the apps on your phone. This has two effects that immediately make engaging with social media much easier. First of all, you’ve now cut out your mobile access to these apps, which means unless you are sitting down somewhere or at home with your computer you won’t have the ability to keep checking and re-checking Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and you can get down to a much more reasonable time spent on social media.
The second point is a little more subtle, but because most of the time spent using these platforms is on mobile now, companies are devoting much more energy to making their apps and content more engaging on the smartphone. This is down to what you see when you open the app, what content is put at the top of your feed that will keep you scrolling, what notifications show up and a thousand other things that are designed to keep you on that app a little bit longer. Because a little bit longer means a few more ads you can see and the more ads you see the more money they make. But also each time they can show people are spending more time in their app, the more money they can charge businesses buying ad space on their platform - so the cycle continues. This kind of optimising on the desktop version of their apps does occur, but not nearly to the extent that that it happens on mobile. This means that when you check your social media accounts on a desktop, you are seeing a version that is less addictive and less able to hack your neurological hardwiring to give you a little dopamine kick every time someone likes your post or responds to one of your comments.
3) No phones in the bedroom
For most people the times when they use their phone the most is in the morning and evening when they want to check what’s happened while they slept or are looking at it as they wind down for the day. But screens of any kind at least an hour before bed have negative impacts on sleep, even if what’s on the screen is an adorable puppy video.
In the morning when you wake up and pull back the curtains, the sun hits your eyes and the blue light from the sun signals to your brain and body that it’s time to wake up and suppresses your melatonin levels (the hormone that makes you sleepy). So in the morning and throughout the day this is great (and is the reason an afternoon walk at work is so beneficial). But as the sun goes down and it gets dark, that absence of blue light allows melatonin to rise over the course of a couple hours, making you sleepy. Enough so, that by around your bedtime you should be sleepy enough to fall asleep.
The problem is that in modern times, the evening is usually when we throw on Netflix, and go on our phones or iPads. That same blue light being emitted from the sun is what is being emitted by almost every digital screen you encounter. So now, instead of darkness descending and melatonin rising, melatonin is suppressed by the light from your phone and you are delaying the onset of that sleepy feeling. So if the last thing you do before turning out the light at night is scrolling through Instagram, it means your brain now needs to spend the next hour or two building up melatonin before you’ll be able to fall into any sort of restful sleep. Full disclosure, this is probably the practice I am worst about as I like to set up a podcast to listen to while I fall asleep to cut out the London city noise. But on the nights I am able to do no screens in the hour before bed, my sleep is much better.
This also has implications for the morning where if the phone is outside of your room, instead of checking Facebook and email first thing, now you can wake up without being greeted by the anxiety of the outside world and all your to-dos. Cortisol (the stress hormone) is always highest right when you wake up and is your body’s version of lighting a fire to get you out of bed. But when you check email right away or read about some horrific news in another part of the world, it’s like throwing fuel on that fire and you’ll spend the rest of the day trying to tamp down that cortisol.
Starting with these practices will immediately make your relationship with technology much more positive and useful rather than overwhelming and anxiety inducing. But I also want to note that despite how it may sound, I don’t necessarily put all the blame at the feet of the large tech companies, just as I don’t blame McDonalds for the crisis of obesity in most developed countries. The difference is, we don’t have a self regenerating Big Mac in our pockets at all times that we can take a bite of for a little dopamine hit. Also that Big Mac doesn’t say every 10 minutes “hey don’t you want a bite?”
These companies will continue to optimise a product which likely has had more of an impact on society in a decade than any change in any decade before, merely because of the speed at which it can be changed. To continue with the Big Mac example, if McDonalds were to create the Big Mac with a specific set of ingredients and seasoning perfectly aligned to every persons preferences and taste buds, we would all be 600lbs with platinum McDonalds AMEX cards. Every algorithm and optimisation is designed to keep you coming back for more content that is perfectly curated based on what you have enjoyed in the past.
We all have choices of what to use and not use, but a few tools to combat this cycle and just get the best parts out of these technologies (catching up with old friends, speaking to family on the other side of the world, being able to find a place without having a stranger scribble it down on a napkin) can hopefully help us be a little less distracted, and a little more present.