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From the Editor: The time-sucking labyrinth that is your phone

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Posted on: May 16, 2018

By HEATHER WRIGHT — When’s the last time you checked your smartphone? How long can you go before you feel compelled to check it? I admit that I’ve been judgmental of dining couples who seem more into their phones than one another. And of pedestrians hypnotized by their phones, creating a world — not of faces and eye contact — but of craned heads bent over colorful screen backs. And of parent friends around our Vigilante table on school mornings who constantly check their phones (you know who you are).
However, as I learn more about tech companies and their attempts to keep us on our devices, I’m developing more compassion for those hooked on their phones — as well as an understanding of why, after a busy HL&T production week, I’m pressing and swiping my phone more.
When I’m driving, I trust that the road was designed to facilitate safe, efficient travel. Traffic circles, on-and-off ramps, speed limits, road signs, guardrails and the like exist to support this goal. Sure, there are other considerations — such as economizing and working with and around the landscape — but overall, those who plan and design roads strive for the common good.
In contrast, the design of many commercial stores is for the business’ good vs. the common good. Owners want to get us in their store and keep us there as long as possible, buying more than we planned along the way. Grocery stores locate produce in the entryway so that we feel good about ourselves, lowering our defenses for our later encounters with potato chips and ice cream. Staples — bread, milk and eggs — are placed far away from the entrance, giving us the opportunity to pick up a few extra items along our journey.
Or think of the IKEA labyrinth. The store is overwhelming, and arrows on the floor soothingly promise they’ll eventually get us to where we’re going, while somehow taking us past every showplace item on our way. When we finally make it to the checkout, we’re confronted by huge bins of cheap, colorful items. Our energy to resist is depleted by the hours spent weaving around the store. Surely, one more item won’t really matter.
Mobile technology works similarly and revolves around the attention economy. The longer sites keep our attention, the more likely we’ll buy something, either from them or from an advertiser. And even if we don’t buy something, we’ve given them loads of data which they can use later or sell to advertisers.
Many Silicon Valley executives and developers are well aware of the addictive qualities of the technology they’ve helped create. And they take strong steps against their own — or, sometimes more tellingly, their children’s — use of such technology. Bill Gates’ children couldn’t have their own cell phones until they were 14, and Steve Jobs kept his children from using the iPad when it was first released. Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, had a device installed in his home that cuts off access to the internet at a set time every day. And when Justin Rosenstein, the co-creator of the Facebook “like” button (which he describes as providing “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”), bought a new iPhone, he asked his assistant to set up a parental-control feature that would prevent him from downloading any apps.
An October 2017 Guardian article described how Rosenstein and others like him have grown concerned about their inventions and how the mobile tech industry is geared toward capitalizing on addictive behavior. For example, Facebook’s “like” feature, according the article, “caused engagement [to soar] as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from giving or receiving social affirmation, while Facebook harvested valuable data about the preferences of users that could be sold to advertisers.”  
Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist and product philosopher, was told by a friend working at Facebook that their alert feature started off as blue. “But no one used it,” according to Harris. “Then they switched it to red and, of course, everyone used it.” Harris describes red as a “trigger color.” Think sirens and fire trucks and stop signs. Red declares, “Pay attention and take action!”
Harris also described how the most effective design uses the concept of variable rewards, the behaviorist finding that makes gambling so consuming: Maybe you’ll get a big reward at the pull of a lever, the touch of a red alert button, and maybe you won’t. You’ll just have to keep pulling, keep pushing and swiping, and find out.  
It’s obviously working. The average U.S. user spends about five hours daily on their mobile devices, according to Flurry Analytics. A 2016 study by Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of U.S. teens and 27 percent of their parents reported feeling addicted to their mobile devices.
A good first step in gaining control of our mobile device use is knowing that the information superhighway is not a road designed to get users safely and efficiently where they want to go. It’s more of a labyrinth that keeps us following its arrows, clicking its links, turning corner upon corner upon corner until we emerge … hours later … with a sense of groggily waking up and wondering where the time went.
The Center for Humane Technology, an advocacy group founded by Harris and other former tech insiders and CEOs, makes a number of other recommendations such as charging devices outside the bedroom, going grayscale, limiting notifications and banners, and setting homescreens to tools only (no apps). The group also recommends a variety of apps designed to cut down on distractions by, for example, temporarily turning a smartphone into a dumb one, or tracking time spent on devices or on specific apps. Common Sense offers research, advice and tools to parents, teachers and children to promote positive media and tech usage.
Schools are beginning to grapple with how they can assist students in taking control of their digital worlds. I’m now very curious about Hyattsville-area schools and if and how they’re helping students become masters of their devices, versus being mastered by them. Please let me know if you have some of the answers; I think I’ve found my next article pitch.



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