Secret tricks to beat phone addiction shouldn’t be secret
Grayscale mode has been reported in the tech press to combat phone addiction, but I first heard about it last week during a Twitter Spaces chat with 19-year-old college student Emma Lembke. years who launched the LOG OFF movement to help young people. create a healthier relationship with social media. Emma, whose Instagram addiction since she was 12 has taken a toll on her mental health, told me she puts her phone in grayscale mode whenever she has exams or was going through a stressful time in life. An edited transcript of our conversation can be found at the end of this column.
Steve Jobs, who relentlessly pursued the aesthetic perfection of Apple Inc. phones, would probably roll over in his grave at the thought of draining our handhelds of all their carefully chosen hues. But making your phone gray is not easy. There was a labyrinthine series of settings that I first had to navigate. (To switch to grayscale on iOS, open Settings, tap Accessibility, then tap Display & Text Size and finally scroll down to a feature called “Color Filters.”) None of this appears when you search for “grayscale”, “black and white” or “color” in the iPhone Settings app. You have to Google the steps.
Of course, it won’t surprise anyone that tech companies aren’t singing from the rooftops about how to spend less time on their products. But it wouldn’t kill them either to make it easier for people to moderate the time spent mindlessly scrolling.
Other products with addictive qualities have friction imposed by regulators: cigarette packs have graphic warning labels (1) while alcohol advertisements remind consumers to “drink responsibly”. There is no similar requirement for Big Tech companies, despite widespread evidence that excessive phone and social media use leads to mental health issues. At a minimum, they should highlight tools that allow people to use them less compulsively.
But neither have they made it easy for those creating tools to control phone addiction. Last October, Meta Platforms Inc. sent a cease and desist letter to a UK software developer who had created a free browser tool that automated the process of unsubscribing an entire Facebook friend list, making the thread topicality of a virtually empty person, while still retaining these friends.
Louis Barclay released the tool in July 2020 after trying to manually unfollow all of his Facebook friends — a process that can take several hours — and found he was no longer tempted to scroll through a stream of content without end. The hours he spent on Facebook dropped, he told me in an interview, as his addiction became manageable.
Around 12,500 people downloaded Barclay’s tool, Unfollow Everything, but a year later, in July 2021, Facebook demanded it be removed. He also banned her from using Facebook or Instagram for life, saying the tool compromised user security and privacy. A Facebook spokeswoman said it was wrong to suggest the company was motivated to reduce users’ control over their use of the site, and said it provided an activity dashboard and reminders to limit notifications, after working with mental health experts.
I’ve used another of Barclay’s other tools, called Nudge, with Twitter. It flashes a reminder once you’ve scrolled more than 10 posts at once as a gentle reminder that constant scrolling doesn’t necessarily lead to more useful information.
There is a whole cottage industry of widgets like this. (2) Apps like News Feed Eradicator aim to reduce distractions, Flipd keeps focus on goals, and Freedom helps block out distractions across all devices. Some are apps, but many are also browser extensions, which Barclay says may be easier to distribute because apps must follow App Store rules. Unfortunately, none of these services make it into the top ten app store lists.
That’s why Big Tech platforms should embed tools for getting started with their digital power into their own products. Apple, to its credit, has taken a few steps in this direction, in recent years adding updates to the screen time, a “Night Shift” mode to reduce blue light, and “Do Not Disturb” buttons. ” and “Personal” which make it easy to stop most notifications.
But Apple and Facebook could also do more. Apple could make it easier to find and switch iPhone to “grayscale” mode with a single button in its drop-down menu. Apple declined to comment. Facebook could make it easier to unfollow lots of friends at once, to give users more control over what they see in their News Feed. Barclay believes Facebook users should be given the option to opt out of the News Feed altogether. It would hurt his business model, he acknowledges, “but we should have that choice.”
Below is an edited transcript of my Twitter Spaces chat with Emma Lembke, the 19-year-old founder of LOG OFF, a loose collective of young people encouraging others to spend less time on social media.
Parmy: Your LOG OFF movement isn’t suggesting that teens quit social media altogether, so what should they do instead?
Emma: What we’re promoting is getting to a point where you can develop healthier habits around social media.
Parmy: So what’s your advice for people who want to do this?
Emma: A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t necessarily need to delete all of their apps. They can just grayscale or search [browser] expansions. I looked for apps that would balance my use of screen time and allow me to express myself, to continue to understand who I am while staying in safer digital spaces… I downloaded Screentime Genie from Stanford, a app called Blue Fever and an extension called Opal which is a screen time productivity tracker.
Parmy: Tell me about gray scale and how you used it.
Emma: This is the technique on which I receive the most comments. You’d think turning your phone to black and white won’t do much. But I always turn to grayscale when I’m in exam time or when I’m under stress. The time I spend on my phone and on social media is more than halved. I spend 30 minutes max on my phone all day, maybe even 20 minutes.
Parmy: That’s a big drop.
Emma: During my senior year in high school, several friends came up to me, laughing at me and saying, “What the hell is that?” Why is your phone black and white? The two people who made those comments texted me later saying, ‘Hey can you send me details on how to do this? In fact, it really seems to work.
Parmy: Have you had any feedback from technology companies on what you want?
Emma: I didn’t. I look forward to the day when I get an email from anyone from these teams.
More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:
Why everyone wants to be like TikTok: Timothy L. O’Brien
One Billion Chinese Files Probably Leaked Through Negligence, Not Hacking: Tim Culpan
Why you will probably (still) soon have the Covid: Therese Raphael and Sam Fazeli
(1) Graphic warning labels on cigarette packages don’t have as much of a deterrent effect, according to one study.
(2) Another browser tool hides Twitter likes and retweet counts, which helps me better judge tweets based on content, not virality. Last year, during an outage that took Facebook services offline for several hours, for example, I found it easier to ignore rumors that racked up tens of thousands of likes on Twitter claiming that the code Facebook source had disappeared.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former journalist for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion