Screen Time, The Social Dilemma, and My Plan To Fix My Phone Addiction

Four months ago, I wrote How not to spend half of my life on my screens. For a month or so, it decreased my screen time substantially. After that, I de-prioritized limiting my screen time and as with all things we do not prioritize, it became a casualty of my other decisions and priorities. I do not always follow my own advice and it does not always work even when I do. In this case, mostly following it did work for a bit, but then I stopped caring about the issue and so it naturally returned. 

After watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix last night on my brother’s recommendation, I care about the issue of screen time again. I am spending way more time on my phone than I believe is good for me. The most staggering statistics from the film demonstrating the ill effects of our addictions to social media (on our phones specifically) came from two charts. They showed the disturbing trends that have been observed among young girls since social media became popular on mobile phones around 2009. The number of teenage girls who ended up in a hospital because they cut themselves or otherwise harmed themselves was mostly steady for the first decade of the current millennium. Since 2009, it up 62% for 15-19 year olds (increased from 4 to 6 girls per 1,000) and 189% for 10-14 year-olds (increased from 1 to 4 girls in 1,000). Suicide rates among teen and pre-teen girls have followed a strikingly similar trend. These patterns seem poised to get worse as the algorithms of social media companies and other ad-based businesses get better and better at attracting our attention through “tools” designed more like slot machines than bicycles. In the documentary, there was a quote that said, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.” There was another about how the only two kinds of businesses that call their customers users are app-makers and drug-dealers. The point is clear. Us users are not the customers. The ad-buyers are the customers. Our attention is the product. It is what the ad-buyers are paying for. The computers that control your feed are incentivized to increase the supply of the product, your attention. The more data you give them and the more advanced they get, the more of your attention they will take.

Sufficed to say, the documentary served as a good kicker to get me to do something I have been wanting to do but putting off for some time now, to spend less time on my phone. While the execution may be difficult, the plan should be relatively easy to create. I am almost done with it and am writing this now as a way of forcing myself to finish. 

I started by diagnosing the problem. I have been spending roughly 6-8 hours on my phone daily most weeks during the last couple of months. I am not proud of that figure. Roughly one-third of my screen time is spent on Twitter. Another half is split between Safari (internet), Messages (text), and Superhuman (email). I will make a note here that Safari would be the most helpful app for me to be able to break down further into what website I spend time on so if you know some way to do that please let me know. Anyway, that leaves just one-sixth of my screen time outside of those four applications. That is a huge positive from my perspective as the problem becomes much more manageable right away. I do not have to figure out much. I simply need to limit my time on Twitter a lot and on the internet, text, and email a bit. I will discuss my design of rules to help accomplish this solution before my design of my phone itself because the second part I did last night and am very happy with but the first part I still need to figure out... so here it goes.

Here is the experiment I am going to commit to. I will only allow myself to use Twitter on my phone if it is directly after a meal and if I am walking. I learned from Josh Clemente on my podcast a few weeks ago that one of the best things people can do for their metabolic health is walk after meals. I can pair my dopamine-filled Twitter indulgence with this good habit and make it a great use of time overall (I do believe I get significant value from Twitter by learning from the select few people I follow, discovering others for the podcast, and more, but the issue is simply that I spend more time than is good for me). I will allow myself to make these Twitter walks as long as I want so long as my Twitter usage remain confined within the single walking session. Once I am done walking, no more Twitter until after my next meal if I want to walk again. I only eat around noon and dinner so there will be a maximum of two sessions on any day. Among other benefits, this will also keep me from starting or ending my day on Twitter which are the worst times to be on it or use a phone generally. I can try replacing it with reading which offers the same benefit (learning) but through a better habit. I will see how this goes... Importantly, I will also allow myself to go on Twitter on my computer whenever I want without limit. This may create a separate problem but I am okay with that if it solves the problem I am focused on solving which is to lower my phone screen time and, in order to do that, my time on Twitter on my phone specifically. I can access my phone anywhere at any time whereas my computer is dependent on WiFi and generally not as addicting for me. I sincerely doubt that it will become as big an issue, if it becomes one at all. Most importantly, being able to use Twitter on my computer allows me to avoid making reasonably valid excuses to go on Twitter on my phone, such as to tag and thank a podcast guest on the automatically tweeted links to the episodes that post when I publish them on . If I need to use Twitter, I can always use my computer.

I believe the more simple and easy a strategy is, the more likely it is to be executed. For that reason, I will not make any further rules like the one I made for Twitter above. To recap, the rule is that I can only use Twitter on my phone while walking after a meal. I covered some of the nuances of what I can and cannot do but ultimately it is as simple as that. It is one rule and extremely easy to remember. We will see how it works.

Next, I want to share with you my new phone design. I believe it will help me adhere to my Twitter rule and satisfactorily solve the remaining components of my overall phone time problem without my having to make any additional rules. Below you will see screenshots from my phone. The first is the screen when I unlock my phone and swipe from left to right. Next is my home screen. After that is my second screen, then the third screen, etc.. I will explain some of my reasoning for the design in the captions. Lastly, there are two general items I should note that are not captured by the screenshots. First, remember that although these screenshots are in color what I actually see on my phone is set to greyscale. This is something I have stuck with for over a year now and have high conviction is worthwhile. Second, I have turned off notifications on almost every app. This is also something I have had active for a while, though I did make a few new adjustments. The only apps with any notifications on are Calendar, Duo, Find My, GroupMe, Messages, Phone, Superhuman, Uber, Venmo, and WhatsApp. Moreover, the only ones with both banners and badges turned on are Messages and Superhuman (texts and emails).

Without any further ado, here is my phone from screen to screen:

I like having my pedometer and weather app one swipe away from my home screen. Both are good to keep an eye on. Those 18 steps were from my bed to my bathroom to my desk -- more movement to come haha.

Top: I really like this new widget feature on iOS 14. My screen time is now the first thing I see when I unlock my phone so it is impossible not to be conscious of it. The calendar only shows the next thing coming, encouraging me to take my days one thing at a time and more generally to take life one day at a time. /// Bottom: Podcasts, RunKeeper, 7, and Notes are all apps that I use or at least want to use near daily. RunKeeper tracks my runs and 7 gives me guided 7-minute HIIT workouts. They help me exercise. Podcasts and Notes are great.

Basic tools. At this point, I have gone one swipe away in both directions from my home screen and there has still been nothing I am prone to over-using. From these first screens I can tell the time, check the weather, see my calendar, listen to a podcast, exercise, take a note, take a picture, use GPS, and set an alarm or timer. These are true and fundamental tools. I can use them whenever I want and they will never use me.

Now things get a little crowded. Anything in the Listen category is fair game. Money I rarely use and GHIN even more rarely (only after a round of golf). The Communicate section is the important one on this page. It contains two of my top four apps where I spend the most screen time, Messages and Superhuman. By moving them a couple screens away from my home screen, I have added some friction to decrease my usage. I am fine with using both when I have a message to send or respond to, but I hope this move prevents me from other actions such as compulsively checking Superhuman to see if the recipient has opened my email yet (a useful feature, but an addicting one).

I have added even more friction to get to Safari. After Twitter, Safari is where I would most like to decrease my time. I will not make any rules for it at this point, but I have made it harder to get to and titled the category "Why?" to encourage asking myself why I want to use Safari at the moment. If I am looking for something specific on the internet, I can use it, no problem. Most of the time, my guess is I am not. I usually bounce between websites that I don't gain much if anything from. The other apps in that section I do not use much as is but are prone to compulsive checking and the other sections on this screen I do not use an app from hardly ever.

Finally, deep on the 5th screen of my phone we have Twitter. Again, the category is named to remind me of the circumstances under which I should enter, only if I am walking after a meal. I put the Pedometer app in there just so that I could make the category with that title. I never need to open this app as I can see my activity and open the app if I want from my widget in the first screenshot.

That is my plan to fix my phone addiction. I am looking forward to seeing how it works for me.

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