Dealing with Phone Addiction: A Second Perspective
Author Adam Alter recently released a book about dealing with phone addiction. As this topic comprise a nice chunk of my book The Impact of Technology on Behavior & Happiness, I thought I would share his five suggestions and add a few comments.
While some of Alter’s findings I found a bit far-fetched — for example, that the average work email goes unread for a mere six seconds – his point about addicted children struggling to learn empathy and emotional intelligence from screens resonates loudly. My work with colleges and universities in this space, as well as growing problems of digital addiction, are both mushrooming student problems. Campuses are overflowing with a rising number of students who lack coping skills and resilience.
Those two things are life skills, taught and learned in the real world and not via app.
Alter points out that even though Steve Jobs was the visionary behind the iPad, Jobs wouldn’t let his children use one. To underscore the point, Alter quotes a 2010 New York Times interview where Jobs shared that he limited the use of technology in his home.
Since all addictions fester, in Alter’s words, to “soothe psychological distress,” phone addiction fills gaps in areas of life that are incomplete. Among those he cites are loneliness, being bullied, and struggling to make things happen. Immersion and distraction deflect but do not remedy these problems.
Here are Adam Alter’s five recommendations for dealing with digital addiction, along with comments:
- Don’t Say “Can’t. When it comes to stopping chronic phone overuse, Alter suggests saying “Won’t” instead of “Can’t.”
Comment: His semantic positioning here is interesting. ‘Can’t’ infers denial. ‘Won’t’ is a promise to self. His corollary data suggests better results come from those who use the word “won’t” instead of “can’t,” such as, “I won’t touch my phone for two hours,” as opposed to, “I can’t touch my phone.”
- Proximity is Destiny. Adam suggests that proximity breeds temptation and that distance is good.
Comment: My research took this topic much further but suffice it so say I am also a staunch advocate for intentional disassociation. Build personal “no phone” time into every day. Start small and increase those amounts of time to regain control of your mindfulness air space and behavioral choices. Reinforce that commitment by keeping that phone out of reach, out of sight, and out of hearing range.
- Use a “Stopping Rule.” Referring to what he calls a “ludic loop,” Adam ties the lure of the cell phone to that of a slot machine. He recommends hard stop times for access and engagements. Minutes slip into hours for those who lack time stop discipline.
Comment: I researched and wrote extensively about casino gaming and slot machine design, and how technological advancements in that industry are aimed at accelerating engagement time and frequency. The ‘Stop Rule’ ties to my advice on maintaining acute cognitive awareness about how each day’s waking hour time choices pass by. Time passes one of four ways: We waste it, spend it, invest it, or cherish it. Stay alertly aware which of the four bucket your phone usage is falling into, and act accordingly. Waste and spend as little time as possible, since neither provides a return. When your ROTI (Return On Time Invested) is low, act on it and park the phone. Manage your time smartly and you will waste less of it. As I am fond of saying, “Use your tools, don’t let them use you.”
- You Don’t Break Habits. You Replace Them. Here Adam recommends that you can’t expect to succeed by just stopping one habit without substituting something in its place.
Comment: The quickest way to make sure habit substitution works is to have your new behavior feature a positive reward, because positive reinforcement makes it easier for the brain to commit to continue. No reinforcement makes it easy to slide back into what is easy and familiar. Don’t just substitute, substitute and reward yourself.
- Jekyll, prepare for Mr. Hyde. Adler’s suggestion here is to make sure the phone is out of harm’s way in times of temptation.
Comment: Addiction and drunken texting aren’t exactly tied together but the point he makes is solid to the extent that “delivering us not into temptation” is always good advice, regardless whether you drink or not. If the phone is nowhere near, you have eliminated the chance of self-creating a preventable problem. Here again mindfulness matters, because if you are living in the moment you will not create problems out of boredom.
Adler also points out that phone addiction is often a sign of bigger behavioral problems. He writes that the real key is not found in the phone, but inside the heart and head of the person who owns the phone. He stresses the need for a good, full life – an advocacy I join him in championing – because a rich, full life is never as vulnerable to addictive behaviors as is one with empty gaps.
In closing, do yourself a favor: Never underestimate the power of digital addition. Its ability to influence behaviors and change lives is very similar to an iceberg’s potential to create problems. It is not what you see that endangers you; it’s everything you don’t.
To read more about Adam Adler’s perspective on the topic, check out his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
To read more about where we were prior to the rise in digital addition, where we are currently, where technology is taking us next, and what to do today to protect yourself and those you care about, pick up a copy of my book, The Impact of Technology on Behavior & Happiness. The link is on the site here under my “Book” tab, or you can order a copy from any major bookseller in print or digital form.
The more you learn about this topic, regardless of the source, the better off you are. I am happy to share Adam’s supportive perspective and wish you all the best.
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