Saturday 25 May 2019

Going grey: diary of a phone addict

A hidden smartphone setting is said to provide the cure to digital addiction. But does it really work? Caroline Foran tries it for a week

Fade to grey: Caroline Foran spent a week using the greyscale setting on her iPhone Photo: Steve Humphreys
Fade to grey: Caroline Foran spent a week using the greyscale setting on her iPhone Photo: Steve Humphreys

The average person is said to check their phone 150 times a day. Regrettably, I fear that would be a gross understatement for me.

The truth? I pick up my mobile with the same frequency you might want to scratch a violent mosquito bite. From the moment I rise until such time as my eyelids are heavy enough to resist it at night, it's there. I get excited first thing in the morning as I reach over to my device to see what new notifications are in store. Then, throughout the day, it continues to hijack my attention every few minutes as I check my social apps on autopilot.

The greyscale setting in action Photo: Steve Humphreys
The greyscale setting in action Photo: Steve Humphreys

First I refresh my Gmail app because that's where the really important stuff -relating to work - will be. I then go to Instagram, without which I would expect to experience nicotine-like withdrawal symptoms, checking for DMs, likes and new followers. If I see no red update symbol, I feel deflated, albeit temporarily. No dopamine for me.

Then I click into Facebook, clearing through the updates and scrolling the feed, not for essential news but for videos of animals with human-like tendencies under which I might tag a friend. From here, I go separately into my Facebook messenger app. I finish off with Twitter and by the time I've gotten through all of the above, I reckon I should probably refresh my email inbox again. Just in case. And so the cycle continues.

I experience intermittent variable rewards all day long. I don't do Snapchat and this exclusion makes me feel as though I'm on the, erm, healthier end of the social media spectrum.

In the same breath, however, I am that person who picks up their phone on the way to the bathroom and forgets to finish a sentence when my phone interrupts my train of thought. If I'm out with a friend and I'm left for even 10 seconds alone, out it comes to keep me company. If I go for a walk and forget to bring the phone, I get frustrated. A restorative walk without Spotify? Unthinkable.

Grey area: Caroline switched to greyscale
Grey area: Caroline switched to greyscale

After a meeting, where I try my best to engage with the real, live human being that's in front of me, I return to my phone like an infant that's been left for too long without affection.

In writing these short few lines, I've already been distracted by my phone at least three times - and not because it's buzzed, but rather because I feel the need to pick it up.

When I heard that psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair recommended switching your phone to 'greyscale' mode to cure an iPhone addiction, I agreed to give it a seven-day go.

At the outset, upon analysing my mobile activity, I felt pretty bad about things. Are we, the addicts, to blame for our digital compulsion? Not quite. As explained by Tristan Harris - former Design Ethicist at Google and founder of Time Well Spent, which raises awareness about addictive technology - mobile systems are engineered in such a way that they constantly demand our attention and keep us coming back for more, which keeps high-paying advertisers happy. Harris explains how apps are designed with the popularity of slot machines in America (which make more money than baseball, movies and theme parks combined) in mind. App designers merely link an action (pulling a slot lever, clicking on Instagram) with a variable reward (winning cash or not, getting notifications or not). Everything from the red notifications and the array of colours, he says, are a major part of the problem and directly linked with that familiar hit of instant gratification. The colourful accessibility is what lures us in and the social interactions - or lack thereof - keep us thirsty for more. As he explains, it "hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities".

Speaking on CBS This Morning, Harris was one of the first to suggest enabling your phone's greyscale setting, which is now emerging as a counter trend in response to our dwindling attention spans. Does it make a difference?

Yes, but don't go grey for a 'cure'. Quite simply, you're removing all colour from your phone, resorting to good old fashioned black and white (and grey, obviously).

On day one, I struggled to see how this would impact on my automatic phone checking. It felt to me like an Instagram filter and it was almost nice to look at.

Day two, I wasn't checking my apps any less but I did notice an unwanted side-effect - I got a headache. Every time I looked at my phone, my eyes were straining in an attempt to decipher whether or not there were any new notifications across my range of apps, which is something that, until now, required no brain power whatsoever. You might think this would be a deterrent, but it wasn't. At this point, I was able to pin some of the blame on my job, as my work is so heavily wrapped up in social media and having instant access to my contacts.

Day three, the headache was still there and so I started to spend less time staring at it. I didn't enjoy it, but I didn't necessarily reach for it any less than I had before - which suggests that maybe it's become somewhat of a mechanical tic for me. My dwell time reduced and my bounce-rate increased, but I was still clicking into the apps in the first place.

It really wasn't until day five and six that my conditioned fear of missing something important - which apps are again designed to play into - began to wane, coupled with the automatic manoeuvre of merely reaching for it. Instagram began to lose its appeal and one thing's for sure - I stopped taking selfies. Facebook was far less attractive, while Twitter, which doesn't rely much on colour, remained the same.

My Gmail refreshing obsession stayed the same, but I was less likely to click into promotional content that formerly would have been rich in colour. It wasn't until this point that the increased difficulty around using my phone really began to put me off.

I didn't feel good when I was looking at my phone, regardless of the reward of notifications or not. And because the notifications didn't scream at me in bright red, they had less of an impact.

The greatest benefit after a week of adjustment, however, was the impact it had on my life at home. I engaged with my partner with more awareness and I felt, in general, less frazzled. I discovered something I hadn't felt in a while - focus. When it came to the aspects of our phones that are genuinely helpful - such as navigating a map - the greyscale mode was a pain: the blue line that points you in the right direction blends in with everything else.

If you're prone to shopping directly from your phone, turning it to greyscale will make a massive difference. Why? Because you'll never get an accurate indication of a product in black and white. It will also prove helpful if you find yourself scrolling endlessly, long after your notifications have been checked.

However, if you rely on your phone for professional and social communication as much as I do, you'll still be on it - it will still ping endlessly - with the addition of an unwelcome headache.

A cure? No. An ideal solution would be the function of making certain social media apps inaccessible for certain hours of the day, and while we wait for that, there's always airplane mode.

Irish Independent

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