Kevin Holesh, 24, had just gotten married and worked as a web programmer when he began to realize that at night, back home, he did not talk to his wife. They both watched, silently, the screens of his cell phone. Something did not work, but despite the guilt I felt every night after foolishly fooling around scrounging, and the feeling, when going to bed, that everything he had been seeing on his screen had not made him feel particularly good, but he was not able to stop doing it.
Taking advantage of his knowledge of programming, he began to design an application that, downloaded to his mobile, allowed him to calculate the time he spent watching the screen. The result left him perplexed, and confirmed his suspicions that something was not right. "My average was two and a half hours watching the mobile screen, and most of it was outside of work, in my leisure time."
Your Moment app, launched in 2013, analyzes and displays in simple graphics not only the time you spend looking at the phone but also the number of times you look at it (pickups) and other statistics. Since it launched it has been downloaded almost seven million times, which indicates that its creator is not the only one who has that uncomfortable feeling of spending more time than he wants looking at his mobile.
The smartphone has a penetration of almost half the world's population (in the US it is 77% of the population, and in Spain, 79%). But, especially when combined with the use of social networks, experts begin to warn of the effect of excessive use: not only decrease in the capacity of attention and concentration but also a supposed increase in feelings of anxiety, loneliness and even depression. There are those who even speculate that social networks affect our capacity for decision and, ultimately, modern democracies.
The latest study by Nielsen calculates in two hours and 22 minutes the average time that American adults spend in front of their mobile screen (using it to connect to the Internet, regardless of the time spent sending text messages or doing a selfi … or even some old ones, speaking for him). In 2016, it was 1 hour and 39 minutes. If this is excessive or normal It has not been scientifically established, but what is clear is that we are not doing other things. And above all: are we looking at the phone because we really want, or is it a compulsive behavior accentuated by the strategies of apps and social networks to catch our attention as long as possible?
Moment's data is even more shocking. Of its active users (one and a half million, only 40% of whom are Americans), the average time the screen is watched is three hours and 57 minutes. "It is true that it is a very special sample because it is people who have already decided that they have a problem and the app has been downloaded to control it", admits its creator. The "culprits" of occupying the largest proportion of that time are social networks, according to this study by Center for Humane Technology.
As any tool, a smartphone It can be used for more or less useful or more or less necessary things. It is not the same to read a brainy article from the Economist on the phone screen or using Google Maps to find a site to spend the dead minutes passively traveling what the algorithms of Instagram or Twitter offer us.
It is in this second use of the telephone that Holesh thinks the real danger is found. "Facebook, for example, has thousands of engineers, and designers, dedicated exclusively to keeping you from leaving the platform, to hold you back as long as possible. It's their business model, and it's what they live on. "
Social networks have a fun and useful side, but they are also a gigantic source of unlimited content, created by algorithms that feed on our I like it and our clicks, where relevant news and anecdotal tricks fight for our attention; Authentic personal information with false headlines and advertising. And, unlike television, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter will continue to teach you content without credit titles or references of time, such as shopping centers where you do not know if it is day or night.
In recent years, the renegades of technology, those who like Tristan Harris, James Williams or Jaron Lanier, now denounce the practices quasi "demonic " from the big companies where they previously worked (Harris and Williams at Google, Lanier at Microsoft) and talk about the Attention economy.
Are we looking at the phone because we really want it, or is it a compulsive behavior accentuated by the strategies of apps and social networks?
As a reply, this year Facebook and company wanted to show goodwill. In August, Facebook and Instagram have incorporated tools to limit the use of their platforms. Google had advanced in June with the announcement of the launch of its program Digital Well Being, that include from announcements in YouTube when one spends certain time watching videos to detailed graphs in the Android phones about the time that is spent in each application; the iPhone X now comes with Screen Time, a feature that offers similar graphics of what we do with our mobile.
They are steps in the right direction, but anyone who has tried to put limits on the use of a device to their children knows how easy they are to jump. And no matter how spectacular the graphics that show you the time spent looking at your mobile, knowing it will not help you use it less.
That's where applications like Moment, or projects like the HabitLab of Stanford University, designed for the use of the web in computers, propose more interventionist programs.
Unlike TV, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter will continue to teach you content without credit titles or references of time, such as commercials in which you do not know if it is day or night
HabitLab, an app for computers and laptops that is installed in the browser, is more radical based on the rules that the user determines (he decides which are the black holes more time to lose) to launch alerts from a message on the screen ("today you have 2 hours looking at Facebook") to directly, turn off the browser. If Facebook is your particular workhorse, HabitLab offers a series of interventions, such as limiting the number of scrolls, disabling comments or removing the clickbaits. "It is very difficult for the same approach to work for everyone, because everyone makes a different use of the internet. That is why it is so important for us to offer a lot of possibilities to customize the use of HabitLab, "explains Geza Kovaks, one of the graduate students who launched it two years ago. The program has been downloaded tens of thousands of times and has about 8,000 active users.
Apart from a service called Bored and great (Bored and brilliant), which is free, and that promises to give you back the pleasure of doing nothing, the service premium de Moment proposes, in exchange for $ 3.99, daily exercises such as "do not use the cell phone in the bathroom" or "leave the phone outside the bedroom". Moment premium users, about 300,000, have managed to reduce, on average, one hour a day their use of the mobile. The awareness programs designed by Holesh last about two weeks and have been completed 21,685 times, which means that the vast majority of those who try to do them fail to complete them. "The normal thing is that good habits last you a while, but you end up using it again too much and you have to do a reinforcement program," he explains. "It's not an addiction like alcohol or tobacco, it's not a physical addiction, but it's a behavioral addiction."
Kovaks is less categorical "You can not generalize on the effect of using social networks. There are other studies that claim that it improves the mood, which makes people who use them happier. We just want to give the user all the power to decide how and how much he wants to do it. " One can enter or not in social networks, it is clear. But what does not seem so clear is whether, as with tobacco, they are not designed precisely so that the difficult thing is to achieve a "moderate consumption".