The problem with phone addiction is we think it’s not a problem

Phone addiction is real and it’s beginning to demand our attention

A few days ago, two major Apple investors who own $2 billion worth of Apple’s shares (the company is worth over $900 billion), asked Apple to fight phone addiction among kids. I’m sure Apple may be able to do something, but it’s the proverbial ‘horse to the water’ scenario.

Let’s assume Apple gives iPhones user-friendly restriction modes that allow a parent to easily control phone usage. It simply won’t work unless kids are sold on the concept of excessive phone usage being bad for them. That’s a hard sell in a world where they see adults on their devices 24/7 and justifying it as being work-related.

This vicious cycle can only be broken if adults accept that smartphones are an addiction, and take concrete steps to reduce its use. It’s not easy and this post is partly a reflection of my struggle to first understand phone addiction, and then figure out how to reduce its grip on me, and my child.

Crippled Generation

The truth is our addiction to phones does have far reaching effects as the below interview points out, albeit from a corporate perspective.

Sinek’s observations are quite thought-provoking. With little to distract us, many in my generation were able to focus all their energies on their chosen field to the exclusivity of all else. I believe it’s this focus on their field by that generation which led to the ongoing era of technical innovativeness. Ironically, the coming generation is too distracted by what that innovative technology made possible. Without the same focus, they may not be able to make the leap from good to great. If I’m right, there will be a slowdown in innovative breakthroughs in the coming years, and the world will be poorer for it.

The other conclusion from the interview is we have been carried away by the magic of our gadgets, and conveniently ignored the fact that the effect of these gadgets on kids has not been researched enough. Things like how it affects their concentration, how it sabotages their attempts to learn crucial social skills, and more. Giving our kids unhindered access to gadgets is as good as providing the phone industry with live guinea pigs to test their inventions.

No obsession, no perfection

Here’s another article on how our distracting devices are affecting all aspects of life, even sports. I’m quoting from the discussion about the Big Four in tennis, and why their successors haven’t turned up.

Yet not everyone is convinced by Next Gen’s collective potential. One leading coach — who preferred not to be identified — told The Daily Telegraph that the young pretenders are made from very different stuff to their ageing predecessors.

“These kids are athletic,” he said, “and they can hit the ball super-hard because they’ve been trained well biomechanically. But the amazing thing is that they don’t actually watch tennis! If you sat the top 100 players in the world down and gave them a tennis quiz, the young guys would all be at the bottom.

“That’s so different to the Big Four. It’s a cultural thing: kids today have so many distractions. That’s why we will see some good players in this generation rather than great ones. To be a great player, you need to be obsessed.”

Designed to Addict

The addictive nature of gadgets may explain why Steve Jobs prohibited his kids from having the fascinating devices that he introduced to the world. Having created it, Jobs was smart enough to realise its dangers, and he made sure his kids didn’t lay their hands on it. So the two Apple investors may have a point in insisting that Apple has a moral responsibility to prevent all kids from becoming addicted to smartphones.

Steve Jobs and his gadget-free family

I must add that though Apple began the smartphone revolution, they may not intentionally have set out to get us addicted to our phones. However that is not true of some of the corporate behemoths that followed in Apple’s footsteps.

Exploiting human vulnerability

Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and a former president of Facebook, explains how Facebook deliberately hacked the human brain to get users hooked to the platform in this powerful confession. Here’s what he said:

To be vulnerable is human, to take advantage is Facebook

“When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’ And then they would say, ‘No, no, no. I value my real-life interactions. I value the moment. I value presence. I value intimacy.’ And I would say, … ‘We’ll get you eventually.’””I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.””The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’””And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.””It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.””The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

That’s quite disturbing, to put it mildly. Restricting gadget use is no longer debatable. The real question is how do we go about it.

Phones don’t make addicts; Users do

The more I think about it, the more it seems that blaming Apple for phone addiction is like blaming the manufacturers of ‘playing cards’ for causing gambling addiction. The ‘52 card deck’ by itself is harmless. It’s how you use those cards that is the issue. Unlike cigarettes which are harmful the moment you light up, I have enjoyed hours of harmless fun playing card games with friends and family, or doing ‘card tricks’ that were sometimes based on mathematics. I must add the arrival of the smart phone killed playing cards. They were no match for the dopamine rush of our phones.

In that sense, phone addiction is not all black and white like drug addiction. Those shades of grey are what complicate the issue.

Uncharted Territory

So how much phone is too much phone? How do we draw a line on how much messaging is ok? When do we say ‘enough’ to the endless hours of scrolling through the Facebooks and Instagrams? How do we resist the urge to escape into our phone screens when stuck among a group of strangers?

Besides, how do we get our kids to put away devices when we ourselves won’t? How do we press the ‘pause’ button when our dependence on internet and our smart homes makes it no longer feasible to have a ‘no-internet hours’ policy?

How can society take a stand against a technology when there’s very little concrete evidence against it?

How can we give up a technology when most of the world is embracing it?

There are no universally acceptable answers to any of the above questions. And that is why phone addiction is spiralling out out of control.

What do we say when our kids ask us to prove that using a phone is bad for them? How do we prove the unprovable?

Physical Danger

A related question is the effect of phones on our bodies. How dangerous is the radiation from mobiles and how safe is it to keep them in our pockets, or in close contact with our bodies? That’s a vast subject in itself, which I have attempted to tackle in a previous post.

Going back to go forward

When faced with such questions, we tend to look for guidance to the past to see if there are parallels. If we take smoking, the battle against it began to succeed only when society took a stand against it. And they could do this only when the evidence against smoking accumulated to such a stage that it was no longer defensible.

To take a parallel to smoking, our gadget use is currently stuck in the equivalent era of smoking shown below. Smoking was then viewed not just as acceptable but actually recommended by doctors as good for your throat.

Stanford Research into the impact of tobacco advertising

It took many decades for smoking to go from being a medicine for sore throats to being a killer of humans. We can’t afford to wait for history to repeat itself. But I don’t see society taking a stance against cellphones in the near future.

So I guess it’s every man for himself.

Almost everyone is addicted, and that includes me

I’m a heavy phone user myself, and every day sees new uses that lead to the internet and phone becoming even more seamlessly interwoven into my life.

I usually start my day with a morning workout which includes tennis or a run, and maybe dropping in at the local supermarket. This adds up to an hour or two. My phone is in my pocket all the while. But I actively only use it if I’m running, to record the run and play music, and later to check my shopping list.

After the morning round, I don’t really use the phone much except to say, “Hey Siri… please play music” when I’m driving. Calls while driving are automatically diverted to my car’s system. Not sure how good that is. I have heard that the closed metal cage of a car tends to bounce and magnify the bluetooth radiation on the car’s occupants, and no one knows the long term effects of that.

I work on my computer so in that sense I’m never offline. My computer usually stands in for my phone. Like I use WhatsApp (on my comp) as it’s India’s messaging app of choice. But I’m not really too much on social media, and have muted the few WhatsApp groups I’m part of. I do have a Facebook account but I haven’t posted in it for over two years, and avoid visiting the site as far as possible.

I must admit I’m a news junkie but I try to restrict it to set times in the morning and evening. Reading away from the computer is on usually on my iPad as the bigger screen is less strain on my eyes.

I avoid using the phone function if I can. It’s mostly incoming calls, and if a phone call shows signs of being a long one, I usually plug in a earphone to reduce the phone’s proximity to my body. Else I can actually feel my ear heat up as the conversation goes on.

My problem area is when I’m away from my comp.

Let’s say I’m making a train trip. Instead of reaching out to strangers, I take the easy way out and reach for my crutch. I may be only scrolling through news but I’m missing out on real life. Sadly, I’m only doing what almost everyone else in the train is doing. Once in a while, I meet some old folks who are gadget-free, and they strike up a conversation. But it’s a dying trend.

Overall, I may not be using my phone much but if you count the Mac and iPad, I have not been very successful at reducing device usage, have I?

As for my family, my wife is a workoholic and often doesn’t bother to even check her messages for days. In any case, she has a deep distrust of a mobile phone’s radiation and usually keeps it at a distance. No worries about her getting addicted to the phone.

My teenage kid is the opposite. Like most kids her age, she can spend hours messaging and Instagramming. I have tried to set limits on gadget time on school days but it’s a neverending and mostly losing battle. I have also experimented with letting the child set her own limits. But like Sinek says self-control doesn’t work. She can be on her gadgets non-stop, right through the day, and night too, if allowed. No quick solutions here for sure!

Some ways to reduce phone addiction

Enabling Parental Restrictions Apple can definitely can make it much easier for a parent to put restrictions on phones. For instance, let’s say I tell my kid she needs to put aside her phone during her exams to avoid being distracted by it. And she comes back saying she needs call a classmate on something related to her studies. The problem is once she gets the phone, she may not be able to resist the urge to check her WhatsApp or Instagram apps.

What I need to do is to restrict her access to just a single app (the dialer) on her phone. The video below shows how to do this on an iPhone including disabling all other buttons on the dialer app apart from the number keypad.

The problem is this process is not easy for the technologically challenged parent. I can do it, but I doubt if my wife can. Apple should be able to easily automate the process, and maybe offer it under an ‘App Lock’ tab. In fact, this is exactly what Xiaomi has done in its Android fork, as I have detailed in a previous post on phone hacking. Most Androids will have a similar version. (Apple also allows you to restrict apps, but it’s pretty pointless as most of the apps and functions work even after enabling the feature.)

Android makes it easy to lock down all apps on a phone

Using guest networks to restrict internet I can’t turn off the internet at home to restrict access, as my work requires me to be online. This is where my Netgear router comes in handy. It allows me to create guest networks which can be turned off. I can do this from a Netgear app on my phone, or by accessing the router from my Mac as shown below. My kid’s phone doesn’t have a data pack so she’s theoretically offline once I turn off the guest network. If she insists on internet access for study related purposes, I let her have a spare phone which I lock to just the browser.

Xiaomi (maker of my Android), offers a router with a similar capability as the Netgear router, in India for just ₹999 ($16). I haven’t used it so I don’t know how good it is, but reviews are positive. If Xiaomi can do this, I think Apple owes it to their customers to do the same. They definitely can afford to offer subsidised routers that give better control over internet usage to help reduce phone addiction.

Guest networks can keep kids off the net without turning off the main home network

Gadget substitutes: Finding something to substitute the device is obviously the best way to reduce usage. My attempts to reduce my kid’s gadget time may be misfiring but one good thing is she’s got back to books. The way I see it, reading a real book is any day better than scrolling endlessly on a device.

Credit: wronghands

At another level, our phone is an all-in-one device that has made many devices obsolete. Maybe we should reincarnate some of those dinosaurs. Like I have started wearing a watch again. Sort of. It’s a smartwatch that’s not too smart – it tells time and can also count my steps. I also renewed my newspaper subscription which is not such a big deal at ₹120/month ($2). I did get an alarm clock but it didn’t work out. Ok, it’s not much but it’s a start.

Self denial by parents This is a workable option but maybe not too practical. When my kid is in a reflective mood, she admits children have too many distractions these days, and forcibly taking away their gadgets might be good for their souls. She mentioned a classmate who does not have a cellphone, or even a TV at home. This child is extremely focussed on her main goal, which is to become a professional golfer. She has done well at golf tournaments in India, and has already been ranked internationally. Besides though she rarely attends school, she is among the top five at school, academically.

This made me wonder if my generation has been guilty of giving too many gadgets to our kids. Some parents have been wise enough to not do this, and lucky enough to have kids who buy into the logic. The golfer kid’s parents would be a good example. Besides not having a TV at home, her Dad only carries a basic phone, the type that can only make calls and send messages. The mother accompanies the child on tour and lends her smartphone to the child whenever she needs to access her school’s Whatsapp groups. The Dad who is a pilot, travels with them whenever he can. Self denial is the name of the game. But then again if the Dad was working online instead of being a pilot, this story might have a different ending. So what’s their substitute for gadgets? The entire family is into reading books.

Do not Disturb To their credit, Apple has made serious attempts to cut down iPhone usage with this feature. ‘Do Not Disturb’ is an effective tool that stops notifications and calls on your phone. You can set the time period for say bedtime, and make exemptions for calls from ‘favourites’ to come through.

The ‘Do Not Disturb While Driving’ option that prevents phone access while driving is excellent from a safety point of view. The phone does this by automatically locking down its screen as soon as the car’s ignition is turned on. The phone knows I’m in the car as it is set up to recognize and connect automatically to the car’s bluetooth. Apple needs to do a lot more like this.

Voice Assistants This one is a moonshot. A lot of time, I end up on my devices after having gone online to google something. I have a theory that Voice Assistants (without screens) can plug this loophole by giving me quick answers so I can avoid having to go to my devices. And you can’t get addicted if you not on the device.

Of course, the Voice Assistant is also a device but I have a feeling it isn’t as addictive as long as it doesn’t have a screen. Like I said, this is just a theory but I have got myself a basic Voice Assistant, the Amazon Echo. Getting used to Alexa is a bit of a learning curve, which I have yet to master. Will update this section if I find it’s living up to my expectations.

Little Changes

There are a lot more little things you can do to stop yourself from using your phone. Like avoiding push notifications for emails, so you aren’t constantly checking your inbox. Keeping the phone away from the dining table and bedroom. Signing out from social apps like Facebook and Twitter so they can’t send you notifications. (You sign in and do the entire social thing in one time slot, and sign out again.)

But all this presumes you understand what phone addiction is, and won’t be doing an Amy Winehouse, “They tried to make me go to rehab… I said, no, no, no.”

And we all know where that got her, despite her immense talent.


The problem with phone addiction is we think it’s not a problem was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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