How to Stop Being Addicted to Your Smartphone

We’re becoming unsocial, it no longer satisfies
To engage with one another and look into someone’s eyes

So look up from your phones, shut down those displays
We have a finite existence, a set number of days
Don’t waste your life getting caught in the net
because when the end comes, nothing’s worse than regret
-Excerpt from Look Up by Gary Turk

How did we get to the point that 51% of Americans do not go 1 hour without checking their phone and almost everyone wishes that they checked their phone less?

What Wanting Is

That itching sensation to check you phone is called ‘wanting’ by psychologists. It’s the tension of an uncompleted habit. Most people think of a habit as “something that I do a lot,” or “Something I can’t stop doing.” But neuroscientists think about habits as a fast link between something we perceive and something we do.

A habit isn’t just an action; it’s the pairing of a “trigger” (something we perceive) and an “action” (something we do) where the action automatically follows the trigger. When you are exposed to a trigger (bored at coffee shop), part of your brain wants to complete the habit (check your phone). If another part of your brain stops you (because Becky’s talking and it would be rude) you can feel the tension of the want.

You learned that want because the habit was rewarded. When you tap through a snapchat feed, you see a bunch of videos of all the cool things are friends your doing. That felling of connection acts on your brain as a reward. That repeated cycle of tap —> rewards from the black mirror in your pocket, reshapes your brain. The synapses that drive you to tap on specific apps are getting stronger and stranger every time a reward followed a tap. This synaptic strengthening is the basis of learning. It’s how our ancestors learned where to forage and it’s how you learned to unconsciously make coffee in the morning. Scientist understand the these learning rules so well that they are being used by designers to build habits around products.

But those same insights that designers use to make synapses stronger, we can also use to make synapses weaker.

How to Stop Wanting

These strong synaptic links are there now, and they’re not going to go away on their own. Techniques like quitting cold-turkey don’t try to erase the want. It will still be there, itching at the back of your head. And that’s why you’ve seen people swear off social media, only to reinstall the app a week later. So what can be done to weaken those synapses and weaken the want?

You can gradually weaken a synapse through ‘stimulus devaluation.’ In this case the stimulus is tapping on an app. We can devalue the stimulus by breaking the immediate reward you get from opening an app. Space does this by putting a 1–12 second breathing exercise between the action and the reward. By slowing down the immediacy of the reward the connection is slowly broken. When computers were slower, they were less addictive. This simulates that world. But the pause is variable, and Space is smart. So when you really need to get at your app, Space will only give a short pause. But when you are just mindlessly tapping, Space will give you a longer pause.

Most of the tools designed to help people who feel like they’re loosing control to their phones don’t work this way. Monitoring, limiting, punishing, and scheduling are ineffective at best and often cruel.

The Best of Both Worlds

I’m never going back to life without a smartphone. Smartphones and their apps are too useful. Space is our first step towards building a world where all interactive technology can be useful, without being addictive.

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