6 ways to make smartphones more humane — and less addictive

6 ways to make smartphones more humane — and less addictive

39% of millennials say they interact more with their phones than with their loved ones
What if your phone was smart enough to leave you alone when you wanted to be in the moment?

By LESLIE ALBRECHT Published: Jan 8, 2018 10:27 a.m. ET

A thousand dollars is a lot to pay for a device whose mere presence makes us dumber — according to one recent study — but that’s the price tag for Apple’s newest iPhone. Its facial recognition and wireless charging make it more enticing than ever for Apple fans.

But what if our phones had built-in features to help us use them less?

Some big Apple investors are now asking the company to address the issue of smartphone addiction among young people.

With 39% of millennials interacting more with their phones than with their loved ones (according to one survey), MarketWatch talked with experts about how phones could be designed to grab less of our attention.

Here’s a look at some of their ideas.

Sleep mode during family time and other activities

What if, based on your calendar entries, your phone would know to leave you alone at certain times -- say, during yoga class, dinner with your family, or when you’re in a meeting or focusing on an important project?

“It would be really cool if it would synchronize with your calendar and when you were doing something that’s not email time or texting time, it would go into some version of sleep mode,” said Julie Morgenstern, author of “Never Check Email in the Morning.”

The phone would still work for phone calls, but people trying to reach you via text or email would be greeted with a personalized message like, “I’m not available now, but I’ll get back to you after 3 p.m.” That would help users feel like they weren’t entirely dropping out of communication — a fear that keeps many glued to their phones, Morgenstern said.

Apple is making some moves in this direction. The new iPhone will have a “do not disturb” setting to keep people from texting while driving — one of many potentially life-saving tools found on smartphones.

Auto-reply for text messages

Why be expected to immediately respond to texts immediately 24/7? “For our phones to be more humane, we should have the opportunity to respond that we’re not available,” said Francine Hermelin, creative director of National Day of Unplugging, an annual event where people put down their devices for a 24-hour “sabbath” from technology. iPhones don’t currently have this auto-reply function, but there’s an app called Lil Space that lets Android users do it. (Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) Research has shown that it takes more than 20 minutes for our brains to refocus after we’ve been interrupted by something as seemingly innocuous as a text message.

On-screen timer to tell you exactly how long you’ve been on your phone

Apps like Moment help track phone use, but it might help people use their phones less if there were a built-in timer on every phone screen that continuously told them how many minutes they’ve frittered away liking Facebook posts about friends’ vacations, suggested Morgenstern. The iPhone does tell you when it’s time for bed, so you can get your desired amount of sleep. This idea would go one step further and make users more aware of the time they spend on their phone.

Program an inspirational message to yourself

What if, when you were using your phone, a message occasionally popped up that said, “What’s the best use of your time right now?” or “Be present now.” Little nudges could help us stay focused and productive, Morgenstern said. It would be similar to this website. Except with these digital pop-up fridge magnet messages of inspiration, you wouldn’t have to search for them.

Screens that turn gray and matte

One way to make phones less alluring: Make the screen less pretty and shiny. There could be a function like sleep mode that would make the screen resemble a Kindle screen, dull and somewhat lifeless. “If the screen shifted to that, it would not be pulling at you,” Morgenstern said.

A tool that tells you what you did with your phone today — and what you didn’t do

How about a function that measures “how my phone is distracting me from my actual intention,” Hermelin suggested. “I check my phone to see what time it is and I fall into an email rabbit hole,” Hermelin said. If there were a way to see all the times your phone had hijacked your attention, you might be less likely to get distracted by it, she said. Fitbit watches can already do that to show how many calories you have burned in any given day. This would be like that, but for your brain.

Of course, there’s only so much phone makers can do, noted Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”

“Smartphones are just vehicles for apps and other content; the engines of addiction are the apps themselves,” Alter told MarketWatch in an email. To prevent addiction, “the best I could imagine is that phone developers limit the sorts of things they’ll allow from app producers,” he said.

For instance, manufacturers could forbid the “predatory gaming practice of asking people to pay money at a critical point in a game, when they feel it’s impossible to say no — for example, after investing 20 hours in the game and then discovering that to have any chance of conquering a particular level you’ll need a weapon that costs $10,” Alter said. “Beyond regulating the content of specific apps, I’m not sure phone developers themselves could do much.”


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