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My phone addiction
I want my old brain back.
Is my ever-present background anxiety originating from my little pocket computer?
I’ve suspected this for a long time, but, so far, laughed it off. What do you mean I have a problem? It’s just a bit of fun! Information can’t hurt you.
Yet, of late, my coping strategies for anxiety aren’t working so well and I need to take more drastic action.
I know I’m not struggling alone. Perhaps it’s even some kind of mental health pandemic?
Recently a friend, Alex, and I went down to Bondi Beach to interview random people about their social media usage. Of the roughly 15 people we spoke to, fourteen (!!) confessed their social media usage was problematic. Many were scrolling Instagram as they approached us on a beautiful sunny day!
Outdoors. At the beach.
Go to any public space today anywhere in the world and you’ll see hordes of digital zombies stumbling around, feasting on informational junk food.
We are, in fact, eating our own brains.
During COVID-19, like many others, I found my addiction to technology escalating. The lockdown pushed us to seek comfort and stay updated through our devices. But, the algorithms can quick overpower our primitive neural pathways with irresistible, habit-forming, candy. Intellectual heroin, if you will. Many of us remain trapped with those habits to this day, despite COVID-19 coming to an end.
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It’s the randomness of the feed, and the constant – yet unpredictable – phone notifications, that keeps the dopamine pumping. It’s the same principle that makes slot machines addictive. Instagram and TikTok are informational slot machines. The only winners are the platforms themselves.
For me, I’m reading fewer books, going out less, sleeping badly, and struggling to hit my goals. Meditation physically hurts. I now have the attention span of a goldfish for many things I once enjoyed. Social media is slowly but surely ruining my life. Multiply this across an entire population and I wonder what the long term impact will be.
As a product manager, I understand the psychological parlour tricks in play, but they still immobilize me. I actually feel that it’s a fight many humans will never win. It’s not just a lack of self control.
In China, they place a limit on how much TikTok (Douyin) youngsters can watch in a day, and ban it at night time.
While we don’t have to copy the Chinese model, Governments should at least explore some kind of regulatory intervention. At the very least, public education. The algorithms are simply too powerful to ignore the potential public health issues and associated costs. One day addictive tech products may need to be treated as adjacencies to things like smoking, alcohol, drugs and gambling.
And while ChatGPT might today be “just a fancy spreadsheet”, things will get scarier once we approach artificial general intelligence (AGI). Just imagine: an AI that creates endless hyper-personalized content to keep you hooked for as long possible. Pretty soon that won’t be science fiction.
While I’ve tried and failed many times to curb my phone usage, the stakes feel higher now. I’ve reached some kind of tipping point. I need to go back to pre-COVID levels of phone usage, and ideally much less than that.
What I’m doing about it
I’ve started writing a physical log every time I have the urge to look at my phone. What prompted me to look? I’m going to try to “sit in the discomfort”, rather than looking at the phone. I’ll also try to get back into meditation, even though my brain is in tangles.
I’ll also start relying on my Apple Watch as my primary device. Since I pay $5/month for the virtual SIM, I can still receive calls and send texts when I’m out and about.
I’ve put my phone on grayscale mode. I’ve also placed it on a charger in another room. That way it’s fully charged if I need to take it outside – mainly for Google Maps – but, it’s not within easy reach during the day.
I’ve also uninstalled TikTok and Instagram on my phone. While they are fun, I wasn’t getting anything substantial out of those apps. If I want to use Instagram, I’ll look at it on my computer.
Let’s see how it goes. I really want my brain back, but I know I’ve relapsed many times before.
Are you struggling with the same thing? Do you have any strategies that have worked well for you? Please share in the comments.
If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the book, Hooked by Nir Eyal. It’s a playbook for making apps addictive. It’s has become the bible for product managers trying to drive up their user engagement. Realizing he had created the tech equivalent of a nuclear weapon, Nir somewhat apologetically wrote another book called Indistractable. In it he tries to help people wean themselves off tech.