Technologies transform interactions with the environment.
Just like sturdy down jackets enable humans to function outside during Wisconsin winters, smartphones expand people’s worlds by opening the door to vast amounts of information and interactions. The magic of microprocessors combined with 4G wireless allows us to connect with old friends, sit in on lectures from distinguished professors, and look at pretty pictures of clouds whenever we want.
Any tool, however, has the potential to cause harm when applied inappropriately—wearing a down jacket to the Memorial Union Terrace on a sunny summer evening makes for an unfulfilling experience, just like staring at a smartphone screen instead of the brilliant blue waters of Lake Mendota sacrifices transcendence for technology.
Last week I used an app called Moment to monitor my iPhone usage. For this exercise I also made use of the built-in tracking capabilities that break down battery consumption by application. I’ve known for quite sometime that I use my phone frequently, but I hesitate to ascribe value judgments to the absolute quantity of screen-time I spend without analyzing the quality of my interactions with the device—whether what I’m doing on my phone helps or hinders my quality of life.
According to Moment, I spent an average of 164 minutes on my phone over the past five days and picked up the device between 26 and 32 times during each 24-hour period. The majority of those two and a half hours accumulated during my insatiable consumption of podcasts and audiobooks. I enjoy listening to This Week in Virology, the Nature podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, and audio lectures from The Great Courses while I go on long runs through the arboretum or while I chop vegetables to prepare dinner. Because so much of my phone time arises from listening to podcasts, the raw usage statistics paint a skewed picture of how I interact with the device. Indeed, plotting my average app usage without podcasts is more informative for finding out what I do with my phone when I’m not using it to learn about science or Shakespeare.
Like most Americans, I reach for my phone immediately after my alarm beeps at 4:47 am each morning. Typically, the first app I open is WeatherUnderground in order to determine if I’m going to need GoreTex on my morning run or ride. Because I do not subscribe to internet in my apartment, I access the world wide web via my phone, which is why the 24 minutes per day I spent using the browser wasn’t particularly shocking. I use the Voice memos utility to record interviews for my science writing job with the College of Engineering; Google maps helps me find my way around Madison’s insane excuse for an urban grid.
I was surprised to see that I split my phone time evenly between the “big three” social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Given my unapologetic adoration for creating and consuming images of cloudporn, bikeporn, and foodporn, I expected that I would devote significantly more time to the photo-sharing and editing app.
Using my phone to find information or communicate with people enriches my daily life. However, one habit that I’m hoping to break is my proclivity for spending time on the device in a way that doesn’t amount to anything productive at all.
Oftentimes I find myself unlocking my phone, swiping around my homescreen to see if I have any notifications, putting it away without opening any apps, then repeating the cycle mere minutes later. Even though I wear a smartwatch that alerts me to new emails or incoming texts with a gentle buzz on my wrist, I still find myself mindlessly staring at my phone without actually doing anything much more often than I would care to admit
These mindless checks—searching for a little red badge that I well-know wont be there—make me feel like an addict itching for a quick hit of dopamine, which is why I found the observation that I spent roughly 35 minutes per day simply looking at my home screen deeply troubling. Furthermore, a histogram based on Moment’s data revealed that the vast majority of the instances that I picked up my phone over a two-day period lasted fewer than three minutes, suggesting that these micro-pick ups are the predominant way that I interact with the device.
Moving forward, I aspire to reduce the amount of low-quality screen time that I spend on my phone. Staring at the screen in the hopes that someone “liked” my latest tweet in the last three minutes since I previously checked doesn’t serve a useful purpose, nor does it make me happy. Listening to podcasts, finding out the weather, looking at pretty pictures and occasional Internet browsing are all activities that, when engaged in moderation, enhance my life. Plugging in earphones at the expense of a good conversation isn’t a healthy habit, nor is scrolling through Instagram instead of making eye contact. I try to be mindful, but I admit that I’m far from perfect. Although I’ve deleted Moment from my device for the time being (the app spends battery life like a sailor on leave), occasionally checking in on my phone habits is, itself, an exercise in self-improvement that I’ll likely return to in the future.
For further insight on being human in the digital age, I highly recommend the Note to Self podcast from WNYC. Last year they ran a week-long experiment to investigate whether people could boost their creativity by putting away their phones called Bored and Brilliant. More recently, the show took on information overload with a project named Infomagical. Both series provided highly entertaining listening and practical tips for finding a healthy relationship with technology.