Getting Off The Crack

By Michael Bociurkiw

Look familiar? Passengers at a ferry terminal near Vancouver glued to their devices.

Look familiar? Passengers at a ferry terminal near Vancouver glued to their devices.

“My child is addicted to his iPad. I’ve no idea what to do!” That's a refrain I hear from countless concerned parents throughout the developed world as I gather stories and data for my forthcoming book on smartphone addiction.

Prof. Scott Galloway of New York University’s Stern School of Business, said famously that interrupting a young boy’s iPad session is something akin to grabbing a crack pipe away from the lips of an addict.

Don’t believe it? During a visit to a school near Silicon Valley, a young student told me about her eight-year-old twin cousins who punched a hole in the wall after mom took their iPads away for Christmas dinner. Most of the time, even with company over, they stay secluded in their room binging on YouTube videos - unsupervised. 

As with any addiction, determining the scope of the problem is a first step towards getting unhooked. While experts recommend daily ‘screen time’ for no more than one to two hours, the average American user clocks in at three to five hours-per-day - way, way up from the average 18 minutes-per day in 2008.

Many young children go way beyond that - a staggering seven hours-a-day, with some far longer during school holidays. Little wonder that the average teens spends more time online than sleeping. 

Are we screwed as humanity? Not yet. Fortunately there’s relief at hand. I’ve come across a couple of effective apps for monitoring device usage and for curbing social media screen time.

My hands down favourite app is free! It’s called ‘Moment’ and, once activated, monitors your daily usage in the background. It send push notifications that compares the current day’s usage with the previous day. Moment also keeps an eye on which apps you are using the most. And - Moment Family allows you to track a number of devices and set up device-free times for such events as family dinners.

Experts tell me that most heavy device users underestimate their daily usage by up to 50%. And many college students and professionals Ive spoken to said they’ve no idea how much time they spend on their devices (many college students use several devices simultaneously).

Even if you use apps such as Moment only for a few days it will deliver a stunningly clear picture of how much time you are spending on your screens - even how many times you’ve unlocked them! A paid premium version provides extra features such as allowing you to set daily limit and “get back to life.” Moment claims that users of its premium service have decreased their average daily screen time by 1 hour and 2 minutes - equal to a staggering 377 hours per year!

Using Moment I was able to discover that my heaviest days (which appear in a jarring red in the weekly report) involved almost five hours of screen time across my iPad and iPhone and 21 pickups. My longest session was 66 minutes (probably writing Digital Crack on my iPad). 

Another favourite is Space - also free and developed by a cool team at Venice Beach-based Dopamine Labs (now known as Boundless Mind) who normally are in the business of building addictive apps. Put simply, what Space does is replace the icons of social media apps which you nominate (in my case Facebook) and each time you click on one Space forces you to pause for 12 seconds. During the countdown you're encouraged to take a few deep breaths - or in Dopamine’s words, “a moment of zen.” In this way you are discouraged from walking blindly into a social media session. Brilliant idea!

Says Dopamine: “Its not our fault we’re hooked on  apps - they’re  designed to do that.” The app maker says that, based on research, the instant burst of gratification provided by apps actually rewire our brains. The ‘moment of zen’ that Space provides helps short-circuit the instant gratification.

This spring I travelled to Venice Beach to ask the creator of Space, Ramsay Brown, in person about the app. “So for a lot of people who say they don't have control over their relationship with their phones or these apps, we wanted to give them an equally powerful tool that would parallel what these companies have available in terms of persuasive and behavioural design techniques.”

Finally, want a non-tech method to help you avoid picking up your iPhone or tablet in a moment of boredom?

Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, advises patients with heavy screen use to develop a list of 100 “real time activities” that do not use technology. Consider family outings to the bowling alley or trying to make a pizza from scratch on the bbq grill - all without your devices in hand!

Another low-tech idea to help curb your addiction is to sign-up for 'digital detox' retreats which are popping up everywhere. Research indicates that heavy device users, especially males, felt happier after they stopped using such platforms as Facebook for about a week. One such program, called 'Offline Camp' and located in Russia, requires participants to arrive without gadgets, kids, work talk or alcohol!

Monica Bormetti, who operates digital detox retreats in Italy for 'normal people' such as entrepreneurs or workers, tells me that people who attempt to break from technology have three different experiences: "Some people say they'd like to take a break for a day but really can't; or people really take the break and enjoy it; or people who do it but struggle a lot, feel lost or bored and keep looking for their phones."

Try 'grey screening' your smartphone so that those tempting red-coloured alerts aren't as enticing. Or, as journalist Philip Eil suggested at a recent symposium on 'Teens, Social Media and Mental Health:' delete addictive apps such as Twitter. And if you can't live without Twitter, try breaking things up with cute animal feeds. "It helps to break up the bad news with otters and cats and dogs...you've more control than you realize over who you're looking at and who you are comparing yourself to."

Video courtesy of Chantel Elloway