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Is Your Phone Manipulating You?

Vanessa Hill

4 minute read
teenage girls using a phone in a cafe

As I sat in the vet’s waiting room, I passed the time in the same way as everyone around me – scrolling through my Twitter feed, replying to tweets, commenting on news articles. And then, I received a surprising text from my manager.

“Not sure you want your location connected to your Twitter?”

I froze. As a woman with a following on the internet, I take a fair few precautions to protect my privacy. I scrambled to open my feed, and there it was:

“I’m at Westside Vet”, followed by a geolocation tag on the same block as my apartment.

This was just three days after I switched my iPhone from showing me a full-colour screen to grayscale in an attempt to make me check my phone less often, but more on that later.

As the role of technology in our lives grows ever-present, this year we’ve started to question the ethical implications like never before. It’s been reported that we check our phones 150 times per day – so what’s that doing to our attention and behaviour?

To tackle some of these questions head on, Tristan Harris, an ex-Google software engineer, founded the Time Well Spent movement, encouraging us to reassess our relationship with technology. Our phones and apps are designed to be addicting and Harris believes that some insights into the design process can help us all have a healthier relationship with our phone.

So, what exactly leads to us getting sucked down a digital rabbit-hole?

Credit: Vanessa Hill

Many design tricks are born from persuasive design, a fairly recent area that brings behavioural psychology insights into the world of software design.

You see evidence of persuasive design in apps you use every day: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, use endless scrolling so your time on their platform doesn’t have a finite end point. They also use pull-to-refresh features so, hypothetically, you can pull down and receive new pictures and news to your heart’s content. This, coupled with increased notifications leads to more addictive behaviours because it’s a variable schedule reward. Sometimes the updates are good, sometimes they’re useless, but you have to check to make sure (if they were predictably good or bad it wouldn’t have the same effect).

And apps are using increasingly bright colours, like reds and other warm hues, that our eyes are drawn to before others.

Harris recommends a few key behaviour changes to better manage your time. First, turn off all notifications (except for those coming from a human, like a text); redesign your home screen to only have necessary tools (like Maps, Phone, Messages and Contacts); and change your screen to grayscale.

vanessa hill talking about how her phone is manipulating herCredit: Vanessa Hill

And for me, it was this grayscale tweak that caused my tech-savviness to regress: I found I relied on colour cues to use certain features in apps, so without them I started accidentally hitting the “add location” button to tweets and staring at the screen for a long time, unable to find apps. Though I immediately began using my phone less: Instagram became the least exciting app to browse and online shopping was decidedly less fun.

More-so, the home screen redesign and notification purge did really help – I could focus my attention on other tasks for longer periods of time and have scheduled phone time throughout my day.

These design tricks our phones use to capture our attention are nothing new – many of us will recognise the similarity to pokies, which also use a variable scheduled reward to sometimes pay out players. And just like more time on a pokie can lead to more money down the drain, there’s a simple value proposition for tech companies: the more time you spend on their platforms, the more ads you can be served.

But not all apps are out to get us: others have used persuasive design to develop social skills in children with Autism, reduce obesity and encourage users to quit smoking.

So, should you be using your phone in grayscale? If you’re checking it constantly and feel like you want to be more productive, give it a shot. Either way, it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that the impact of our apps can be both powerful and perilous. Being aware of how you’re using your phone or tablet can lead to healthier choices and certainly more time well spent.

Keen to learn more about how technology is changing our health - for the better and the worse? Check out the Future Happenings tab on The Check Up.

Vanessa Hill is the Aussie creator and host of BrainCraft, a YouTube science series with more than 400,000 subscribers and 25 million views.

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