[I originally published this article for the Startup publication on Medium]
While checking Instagram and walking home in London last year, two guys on a moped mounted the pavement and yanked my phone out of my hand.
As my earbud headphones came popping out of my ears, with what felt like half of my brain, I blurted out some mindless expletive and pitilessly tried to chase them down on foot. As they were speeding away in front of me, blocked from getting back to the road by parked cars, I managed to memorise their license plate.
Running home, chanting the plate number out loud as not to forget it for the police later, I could not have felt more stupid. There is an insane level of phone theft in the city. It’s near impossible to catch these guys in police cars and they use stolen mopeds so they can’t be traced.
What made this even more aggravating, was maybe a few weeks prior I’d been discussing this epidemic with a family friend who works for a city unit, specifically designed to increase awareness about the nature of these crimes.
All the while I was adamant that my astounding presence of mind and superior peripheral vision would keep me from ever being susceptible to such a base and brazen crime.
Some awareness ads in London, UK
I submitted a police report and watched the blinking blue dot on Find My iPhone race into North London, before stopping forever on the corner of Finsbury Park.
The plate number was useless.
Fear and loathing.
The next morning, on my way to purchase a new phone, I ran a little experiment. During the 10-minute walk to the Vodafone shop, I counted how many people were using their phones in public.
Had I been the proprietor of a stolen moped, and so inclined, I could have made myself about £4,000 in stolen phones that morning. I felt like shouting at pedestrians, “PUT YOUR F*CKING PHONE AWAY!”
After picking up my new phone (I was luckily due an upgrade) I found that I was suddenly very nervous about carrying around a device worth around £800 in my pocket, a fact that I’ve never thought twice about before. When the average Joe is carrying a gadget that’s worth more than an entry-level laptop, there’s no wonder that daylight robbery (phone crime) is on the rise.
Furthermore, the fact that my phone was stolen while I was doing something as unimportant as looking at a cat photo, made this realisation all the more ridiculous. And it made me ask myself a question…
Am I addicted to my phone?
There’s a definite movement towards using your smartphone less. The New York Times recently called for Apple to make a less addictive phone. And for good reason.
Ask yourself, when your smartphone beeps or vibrates, do you find that you stop whatever task you are currently doing completely in order to check it? Or do you check your phone the instant you wake up, before getting out of bed? Something as innocuous as constantly watching your never-ending email could be a sign that you are more than a little attached.
Aside from disrupting our productivity, and changing our emotional and social interactions, there are genuine physical dangers.
A whopping 10% of mobile phone users confess to using their phone while crossing the road. And I don’t even want to think about the texting-while-driving stats. So why would a person risk their life to look at their phone?
The average smartphone user in the UK checks their phone 40 times a day.
But for teenagers, that number is more than double!
My 15-year-old brother is besotted with Snapchat. He uses it almost exclusively as a messaging app. If he wants to text his mate to meet him down the shops, he takes a picture of absolutely anything (his shoes, an expressionless selfie, the corner of a table) and then writes over the image in Snapchat and sends it on.
When I ask him what the hell he is doing, he laments with sweeping statements like, “Nobody my age uses WhatsApp anymore”, pulls a pouty face to the camera and sends another image on with that tell-tale ka-dunk sound. If I pull a funny face behind him when he’s taking a selfie, he becomes enraged, much to my hilarity and unease.
This type of social connection and phone interaction is bewildering to me. As a graphic designer, who is supposed to specialise in digital interactions, this makes me sad at how out of touch I am.
On top of this, Snapchat have gamified the process, by introducing Snap-streaks that record the number of consecutive days users Snapchat with another person. Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, talks about this feature in his TED talk. By introducing this feature, the makers of the app have given the user something to lose. Harris remarks that some teenagers even give away their user logins to their friends, enabling them to keep their streaks running if they go on holiday!
After hearing the notification noise on my brother’s phone for the 10th time in one minute, I’d had enough. I challenged him to a bet. It was 5pm. If he could make it to midnight without checking Snapchat, I would present him with a crisp, new £20 note.
Eagerly, he shakes my hand. “Easy”, he says, and the bet is on.
Thirty seconds later, his phone goes ka-dunk, and he reflexively reaches for it. Remembering in the nick of time, he stops and looks at me with a smirk, then places it back on the table. But that’s all it takes for his anxiety to peak. That little red (1) above the app icon is staring at him like HAL 9000 and he is now wringing his hands.
“Open Snapchat please HAL” “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
This goes on for hours. He receives something like 40 notifications before midnight, and with each one he asks to be let out of the bet. “What if there’s a party or something, and I miss out on it?” He is visibly agitated, shifting in his seat.
To his credit, he doesn’t check the app. I magnanimously hand over the £20 with genuine regard. He, of course, dives straight in to the yellow Snapchat icon and starts consuming the messages. In little under a minute he’s done, skipping quickly through most of them. He puts the phone down.
“That’s it?”, I remark. “Anything interesting?”
When app companies have a revenue structure that is designed to keep your attention for as long as possible (watching more adverts), then what chance does the younger generation have?
A walk in the park.
Since my brush with London’s underworld (pfft) I rarely, if at all, use my phone when I’m outside. The level of anxiety I feel when holding it in a public space is palpable. This anxiety is not just reserved for me. If my wife checks her Slack account while walking down the street, I actually feel a pang of anger towards her, such is her apathy.
A typical lunchtime walk for me.
With the exception of checking Google maps, my phone stays buried in my pocket. Admittedly this took some getting used to. The first few days after my phone was stolen, I had to stop myself from firing up Gmail on the go. I even checked a text in the exact spot my phone was pinched, before giving myself a good slap.
Very quickly, not feeling the impulse to check that Whatsapp message became second nature. And utterly liberating.
I have actually found that I now walk more out of enjoyment, over necessity. Perhaps subconsciously my mind is now associating this activity with a period of de-stress, and lack of visual stimulation. But since my outdoor screen hiatus, I notice more around me, and I’ve found that I am choosing to walk to a destination over catching the tube (distance permitting).
Top of the charts: my step stats vs my friends
In my case, I haven’t had to resort to techniques like turning my screen black and white. A forced break and a breath of fresh air each day is enough to curb my screen usage. Plus a concerted effort. But other than the obvious benefits of a little more exercise, I genuinely feel less anxious.
I guess I owe a thank you to the two bikers who pinched my iPhone. Although, I sincerely hope that this was them…
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) October 11, 2017
Thanks for reading! This isn’t a typical article from me. I usually focus on all things design, but I find the psychology of phone usage fascinating (and terrifying). If you’ve tried and succeeded in limiting your screen time, I’d love to hear how you did it.
Some further reading…
Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2017
What is technology doing to us (podcast)
It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone
Why We Can’t Look Away From Our Screens
Are you addicted to email?
Greyscale may curb smartphone addiction