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This is why you're addicted to your phone

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An image of Nick Arnold
Nick Arnold

In 2015, Max Stossel, 28, had an awakening. He was a successful social media strategist working with major multinational companies.

But that same year, he says, “I realised that some of the work I was doing wasn’t actually in people’s best interests.”

Stossel has since become a pivotal part of the Time Well Spent movement, which "aims to align technology with our human values".

Time Well Spent was co-founded by the former Google 'product philosopher' Tristan Harris, and is made up of “a group of industry insiders”, many of whom have worked for companies like Facebook and Snapchat, but have now aligned themselves with the movement in some way.

Last year, Ofcom, the communications regulator, found that more than half of all internet users in Britain feel they’re addicted to the technology.

“There’s this idea that we’re addicted to our phones, and that we’ve done this to ourselves,” says Stossel. “That is just not true.”

Stossel explains that tech design is increasingly informed by behavioural psychology and neuroscience.

Tristan Harris himself studied at Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, which describes itself as creating “insight into how computing products can be designed to influence and change human behaviour”.

The Lab’s website states, “Technology is being designed to change what we think and do.” It gives several examples of this from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

There are thousands of people on the other side of your screens whose job it is to keep you as hooked as possible.

Max Stossel

“When you understand neuroscience and you understand how to develop apps, you can essentially programme the brain,” Stossel says. “There are thousands of people on the other side of your screens whose job it is to keep you as hooked as possible, and they’ve gotten very good at it.”

I ask Stossel just how good these people are. I control my notifications, I tell him, not vice versa. He bats a simple question back my way: “Do you feel at all stressed when your phone is out of reach and it buzzes?”

Um. Yes. The irresistible curiosity, the little surge of anxiety, which grows the longer I leave my notification unchecked – these are feelings I know well.

Figuring out how to capture my attention like that, is, according to Stossel. “the job of everybody in my industry".

Broadly speaking, tech design seeks to take advantage of our brains' reward system, where dopamine activation leads to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.

Our brains are programmed to seek more of whatever gives us this pleasure - so much so that we crave it when we don’t have it. The same system that makes us crave drugs or certain foods can also make us crave particular apps, games, sites and devices.

But Time Well Spent believes this problem isn’t exclusively a tech one. Stossel points out how the range of ways in which content is actually created – including negative headlines and clickbait tactics - can also fit into this realm of persuasion.

“The problem is that it’s everything,” he says. “It’s all of the life that we live in.”

Life has become an “attention economy,” Stossel explains. “Everybody wants to grab as much of our attention as possible. I was designing notification structures to help take you out of your world and bring you into mine.”

Stossel argues that users are not the customers of technology, but the products– our attention is the thing being sold.

“We use lots of platforms for free,” he says. But lots of advertisers pay the platforms lots of money to get our attention while we’re on there. “We’re not the ones paying, so the things that matter to us will go second place to what matters to advertisers,” says Stossel. “And that’s a big deal.”

What this leads to, according to Stossel, is a fundamental discrepancy between the goals of those who own the technology and the goals of us, the people using it.

Success in the tech world is often measured using the metric of 'time spent'- that is, how long we spend using an app, streaming a service, or browsing a website.

For example, Stossel says, dating apps “measure their success in how long they keep you swiping. But is that actually the goal we have as humans when we’re using dating sites?”

Another example is the way videos auto-play on certain platforms. This keeps more people online for longer but, Stossel says, “That doesn’t mean that they actually want to stay online for longer.”

In fact, in 2016, psychology professor Alejandro Lleras published a study that found that high engagement with our mobile phones and the internet “is linked with anxiety and depression”.

Stossel believes that this incessant clamouring for our attention is making us lose focus on the things that are really important.

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“We’re constantly being buzzed,” he says. “How can we ever focus on bigger issues that matter, like climate change for example, when we’re always being pulled in so many different directions?”

The power to change things lies overwhelmingly with the people 'behind our screens' - the ones designing the apps, games, platforms and devices that we use.

“There’s a code of ethics to consider here,” Stossel believes. “Designers have to take the responsibility they have – of influencing people’s decisions – seriously.”

He tells me that Time Well Spent is currently working on a sort of Hippocratic oath for tech designers, similar to the commitment doctors make to work in their patients' best interests.

The movement is campaigning for designers to make a formal promise to design from a place of good intent.

Their aim is for software that has been designed in accordance with these ethical values to be identified by a form of certification, similar to the label on organic food.

In the days following my conversation with Stossel, I notice how often I get sucked into aimlessly trawling through the Instagram stories of people I don’t even know.

What starts as a mindless scroll through my Facebook feed before bed can easily escalate into huge periods of wasted time (and a lot of frustration at not getting the early night I had promised myself, again).

I can certainly see the merit of what Time Well Spent is campaigning for. But the sheer scale of change needed leaves me wondering if their fight might be impossibly idealistic.

“It is absolutely possible,” Stossel counters. “The challenge is getting consumers to demand it.”

He believes technology will manipulate our attention in ever more effective ways.

“VR, AR and more advanced artificial intelligence are all coming,” he says. “The future will be so good at this. That’s why we need to demand this change now.”

Until that change comes, Time Well Spent’s co-founder, Tristan Harris, adheres to certain 'band aids' - lifestyle changes the movement has designed for living better in the attention economy:

He’s turned off almost all notifications on his phone, and has customised the vibration for text messages, so he can feel the difference between an automated alert and a human’s.

He’s made the first screen of his phone almost empty, with only functional apps like Uber and Google Maps - ones that he can’t get sucked into spending hours on.

He’s put any apps he’s inclined to waste time on, or any apps with colourful, attention-grabbing icons, inside folders on the second page of his phone.

To open an app, he types its name into the phone’s search bar—which reduces impulsive clicks.

He also has a sticky note on his laptop. What does it say?

“Do not open without intention.”