Data for GOOD Design

Why We Might Need an App to Save Us from Our Smartphones

by Elizabeth Daley

November 23, 2015

Once upon a time in a world very much like this one, there were no smartphones. We used to suffer through awkward silences, ask strangers on the street for directions, and use cellular phones for, of all things, talking. Questions could not always be answered instantly, and getting lost at night was no fun, but in many ways we were “living in the moment.”

Today, most Americans own smartphones and many of us have trouble controlling our usage, according to Kevin Holesh, creator of the free iOS app Moment, which allows iPhone users to track the amount of time they spend on the devices.

So far, Holesh has found that millions of Moment users pick up their phone 47 times a day and spend 2 hours and 24 minutes using it on average—though a study released last year puts the number of check-ins as high as 221, or a total of 1,500 times per week. 

These numbers are not astounding to Holesh, though a recent study by Common Sense Media may be more startling: Teens spend an average of 6.5 hours each day staring at screens. “I get hate mail from younger teenagers who say Moment has basically ruined their life now that their parents installed it and know how much they are using their phone,” Holesh says. “If I was 13-year-old me, I would hate myself now probably.”

Holesh isn't the only one making a full-time job of helping teens and other users digitally detox through digital means. Ironically makers of smartphones are themselves getting in on the action. The Apple Watch was posed as a solution to smartphone over-use, allowing wearers to briefly look at texts and see who was calling without pulling out the dreaded smartphone. 

At Camp Grounded in California, adults are forced to hand over their devices and mingle, while the app Dinner Mode challenges users to set a timer and put the phone face down for that duration. If you cheat, it knows! Even UNICEF got in on the luddite action during its fundraising campaign to provide clean drinking water to those in need. Rather than running a marathon, the charity based donations upon how long its app users could abstain from touching their smartphones. 

Holesh knows all too well how hard it is to abstain—he initially created the app after trying to reduce his own phone use, and found that he was able to cut back significantly by placing his phone in another room while he slept.  “I built Moment for myself first,” he wrote on his blog, explaining that he created the app initially to curtail his own smartphone use. “I named it Moment to subtly remind people that over time, you are taking out your phone and listening to music or taking a picture and you are not living in the moment; you are sort of being distracted with this screen in front of you,” he said.

Once the app is installed on a device, Holesh says, he does see a downward trend in usage. More people download the app every day, indicating that there’s an increasing segment of the population seeking to rein in the smartphone’s influence on their lives. After all, who among us has not been interrupted by a high-pitched “ding” mid-conversation, or had to repeat crucial information to a friend overcome with phone face, that vacant expression which strikes even the most well-meaning individual when they’re gazing enrapt at their device’s screen.

Holesh has observed that anecdotally, people seem to vastly underestimate how much time they are on their phone. “They sort of guess they use their phone for half as much time as they do,” he says.

The second thing he has noticed is that there are two types of smartphone users: the checkers and the perusers. Checkers will leave their phone out at dinner, face up, so they can instantly see if their phone lights up with a message, while perusers use smartphones to fend off boredom but get sucked in for longer periods of time, according to Holesh, who falls into the latter category.

This is not to say that smartphones aren’t useful tools. According to the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of Americans rely on them to access the internet because they either lack broadband at home or have few other options for online access. For these individuals, the smartphone provides a crucial modern utility. However, Pew found that more than half of users feel smartphones aren’t always needed, while 30 percent describe the device as a leash, and 28 percent find smartphones distracting.

There was a time in the not-so-distant “CrackBerry” past when pulling out one’s phone around company was considered the height of rudeness. Smartphone holdouts, like New York-based collage artist Emma Zurer, enjoy living in that pleasant past. “I don’t have a smartphone because I don’t want to have people emailing me or become addicted to it or feel that I have to keep looking at my email or keep looking at my Instagram or feel that I always need to be in touch,” she says. Zurer likes relying on her own sense of direction and adds, “I don’t want to be at a concert and feel like I have to document it. I like to be more present.”

Like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who was recently mocked when she was caught with a flip phone, Zurer says she does face some teasing. “People make fun of me a lot and they can’t even believe that my phone still exists. They also say, ‘Are you a drug dealer?,’ ‘Is that a burner phone?,’ or ‘Are you 65?,’” she says. She adds that even her parents have smartphones.

Still, along with shock, there is a type of respect afforded to the last smartphone refusers. It takes a certain toughness and self-knowledge to refuse enhanced phone service, which Zurer says is now barely more expensive than her current phone plan. “My phone company calls me all the time and basically says, ‘What are you doing?!’” she says, adding that when her current phone breaks, she may be forced to upgrade.

The feeling that we are too connected is rampant enough to create thriving Luddite-inspired businesses such as Holesh’s, who recognizes the irony that his tech-based business is focused on getting users to interact less with technology. “Moment isn’t about saying your iPhone is evil, and that you should completely stop using it and go live in the woods,” he wrote. “Moment is about finding balance in your life. Connected versus disconnected. On versus off. The real world versus the digital world.”

So, after you finish reading this article—possibly on your phone—just put the darn thing down. As Holesh would say, “Your email can wait.” 

Illustration by Brian Hurst. Screenshot via Moment.

Throughout 2015, we’re partnering with Progressive to harness the power of information. Each week, we’ll put data under the microscope, asking how statistics and research can empower us to challenge our understanding of ourselves and the ways we navigate our world. Knowledge is the first step on the way to progress: Let’s take this information and drive change in the world together. This is Data for GOOD.

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Why We Might Need an App to Save Us from Our Smartphones