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There’s an App for That

by Jeremy McCarthy

The irony of using an app to evaluate and limit smartphone use

How many times a day do you look at your phone? Now, whatever number popped into your head when you read that question...double it. The average user, according to Moment app developer Kevin Holesh, underestimates their usage by about half.

Holesh designed the Moment app to evaluate his own smartphone usage, and like most people, he was shocked to find that he was using his phone twice as much as he thought he was. By bringing greater awareness, the Moment app is intended to help people modify their behavior when it becomes excessive.

Looking at the app on my own phone, I can see that I have averaged 50 “pickups” a day in the past week and spent an average of two hours and 36 minutes on screen time. I wish I could say that this is evidence of my productivity, but the app shows that Instagram and Facebook are the biggest captors of my attention. If this sounds excessive to you, you are probably over 40, or living in a remote, technologically challenged part of the world. Apple data shows that the average user unlocks their smartphone around 80 times a day. And I have seen my own usage rise to over 100 pickups and three hours a day during certain busy periods.

The Moment app is helpful because it brings awareness to the problem, and I have to say it has motivated me to change my behavior. But I haven’t missed the bitter irony of turning to an app to help me manage my relationship with my smartphone. The Moment app highlights one of the many contradictions of the modern age. Technology is one of the greatest threats to human well-being, and also one of the greatest hopes for our future.

It is, as I like to think of it, “the battle of the machines.” There are some technologies that are sapping away at our time, energy and attention. They draw us in, sometimes for hours on end, and leave us feeling drained, deprived of sleep, movement and real human contact. But other technologies are there to pick us up, teaching us mindfulness, delivering yoga and fitness classes to our living rooms, and connecting us more deeply to the people around us.

There is something hopeful about this dichotomy of technology. It means we don’t have to confront the challenge of technology with only our nondigital humanity, which is ill-equipped to defend against the ever-improving algorithms designed to keep us captive. Our human minds can’t compete with the tech companies that use our own data against us, exposing the faulty wiring in our brains and using it to keep us entranced in their products.

It is nice to think that we can use good technology as an ally, warning us when our usage does not align with our values or shoring up our weak human willpower with digital “nudges” to keep us on the right path. In addition to the Moment app, there are a variety of new technologies coming to our rescue in this respect.

Some examples include:

  • An app by Ransomly that allows you to use a “Beacon” to “reclaim the dinner table” by designating a Wi-Fi-free zone in your office, your bedroom or at your dining room table.
  • The DuckDuckGo search engine promises search results that are competitive with Google but don’t track your data.
  • Saent has released a new button you can install on your computer that will turn off connectivity for 45 minutes to allow for focused concentration on your work.

These new technologies give me hope that technology and well-being don’t necessarily have to be at odds. I’m optimistic that we will see a backlash against technologies that capture our attention and surge in new technologies that enhance and support human wellness.

Despite this optimism, there is a downside that needs to be considered. Every aspect of human wellness that we outsource to technology makes us a little more dependent on our devices, and a little less able to take care of ourselves. We need to strive for nondigital solutions to these problems, but if they don’t work, it’s nice to know “there’s an app for that.”

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