How I lobotomized my “smart” phone and regained control of my brain

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About 10 years ago – June 29, 2007 – Apple released the first version of their revolutionary iPhone line. By then, practically everyone of my generation – except me, that is – already had a mobile device of some kind, and so for most the iPhone was a natural extension of this relatively new reality, one which greatly extended the power of cell phones to give quick and easy access to the web, games, and eventually social media. I was a hold-out at the time because, having grown up with a Kaypro desktop computer, video game consoles, and various other electronics, I was fairly certain that I’d become quickly addicted to a portable device. I also didn’t like the idea of being always reachable.

It took me the birth of my first child – and a move to car-dense Southern California and its long commutes – to see the merits of easy communication, and ultimately I broke down and got an iPhone. As I’d feared, it quickly became a central part of my consciousness, pinging me semi-randomly with email notifications, and drawing me into new worlds of information, news, social interaction, and video games. A few years later I got an iPad, which I used almost uniquely for news and video games.

These devices quickly came to dominate my spare time. I very rarely couldn’t tell you where my phone was. And it was rare for more than 20 minutes to go by without checking the phone in some form or another. I fairly quickly came to loathe myself and my relation to my phone, too. It doesn’t feel good to find yourself opening your phone to check something, without knowing what precisely one needs or wants to check. News aggregators like Zite, Google News, Feedly, Flipboard, etc., made this worse, because they lent a veneer of meaning to the exercise – providing information in exchange for my compulsive checking. And in response to this, I often had moments of clarity in which I decided to correct course, and I deleted the worst offending apps – the games, social media like Twitter and Facebook, and news apps. But still the email alone was enough to maintain my attachment, and although the total time I spent on my screen may have oscillated, my feelings of attachment to it did not.

Ten years into this new reality, I taught a summer class on parenting, and featured a section on the effects of screen time on cognition. Mainly my concern here was related to reading and math outcomes, which have been the focus of organizations like the American Pediatric Association, and the basis for their warnings regarding screen time for very young children. And mainly I came to the conclusion that these recommendations were based on overzealous interpretation of purely correlational data (e.g., kids from lower SES backgrounds are more likely to watch TV, and also to experience lower test scores in school). However, as part of this class, I polled my students – a group of 20-somethings – asking them how many hours a day they spend in front of a screen. Here are the data:

chart (1)


As you can see, the modal student self-reported about 8-9 hours of screen time per day, with many reporting 11, 12, and even 15 or 16 hours (that is, every moment except sleep). Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone. But also it made me feel less a victim of myself, and more a victim of my device. Which for some reason made me feel like even more of a loser.

A note on my own pathology: Simultaneous to worrying simply about the attachment I felt toward my phone, and the hours I wasted, I also worried substantially about how I was thinking about the world when not plugged in. I found myself noticing things in my environment and automatically transcribing them into potential twitter-sized, mirthy, chunks. Photos were taken with the Facebook audience sitting on my shoulder. These aren’t thoughts that I had intentionally, or by design, and they weren’t obvious to detect. They were just subtle shifts in how I viewed events – as through the lens of a 3rd party, rather than uniquely my own personal reaction. Maybe this is just my own pathology, but I can’t help but think that heavy users of Twitter and Facebook have the same inner mechanics, whether or not they’re aware of it, or bothered by it, or simply have accepted that this is a totally fine way of functioning in our new connected reality. In my case, it made me feel like a node in a feed-forward network, where my most personal reflections and realizations about reality were curated by the likely response of my closest 500 friends.

“Feedforward, sometimes written feedforward, is a term describing an element or pathway within a control system that passes a controlling signal from a source in its external environment, often a command signal from an external operator, to a load elsewhere in its external environment.” – Wikipedia

But there were other factors. I no longer read the New Yorker, despite loving it. I read books vastly less than I used to. I had trouble denying screen time to my child with a straight face. And, very generally, in moments when I might ask myself what matters most to me in my life, instead of digging deeper, I learned that there’s always HuffPo Entertainment.

In any case, after nearly 10 years of iPhone use, my little summer class survey, coupled with the other factors I mentioned, led me to do something radical: Explore “dumb” phones online. A long story short: These weren’t for me. Dumb phones range from standard Nokia-style flip phones that one can get for under $100, to fairly expensive boutique products like the Punkt, which are made to please the eye, but also deliver minimal functionality. The problem is that there are lots of non-addictive apps on my phone that I truly value, like GPS for SoCal traffic, the camera functionality, podcasts, banking apps, and exercise trackers. These aren’t apps I check, because they don’t generate data randomly, which psychologists like myself (not to mention casino owners) know is the most addictive pattern of reward possible.

For years, I thought that there was no other solution: It was either the full addictiveness of my iPhone or a dumb phone, with all of its sacrifices. And one reason for this is because the iPhone didn’t allow users to delete core apps, like Safari (the web browser) or the email app, inter alia. So these core drivers of addiction were impossible to remove from the equation. And so I stood in stalemate with my unhappy addiction. However, very recently I discovered that iOSX had changed this, and that with a little work, not only can email and Safari be removed, but this can be done with little impact on the core functionality of other apps (here’s a complete list of removable apps). Also, for those who don’t trust themselves, it’s possible to prevent adding new apps without a special password (that can be given to a trustworthy friend or loved one). Anyway, here’s what I did:

  1. Delete the native Apple email app in the typical fashion that one deletes apps.
  2. The typical process for deleting apps won’t work for Safari (*thanks to a reader for pointing this out), probably because it provides core functions to other apps that rely on web access. However, it can still be made to disappear. To banish Safari from your phone, follow these instructions:
    1. Go to Settings
    2. Select General.
    3. Tap on Restrictions.
    4. Select Enable Restrictions.
    5. Enter a passcode.
    6. Select Safari and any other apps you’d like to deactivate.
  3. The next step is to ruthlessly remove apps that feed data to your phone in a random, check-inducing, manner. Games should be first to go, but for me this also included news apps, social media apps, or really anything that is likely to generate notifications of any kind, were you to turn on notifications for that app. In my case, this left me with the following apps:
    1. Mint
    2. Weather
    3. Phone
    4. iMessage (I know, a concession, but for me texting has never been an issue)
    5. Mint finance
    6. Travel apps (United, American, Alaska, TripIt, Uber, Lyft, etc.)
    7. I’m seriously having trouble listing more, so far have they faded from my memory. So now I have to find my phone (no idea where it is), and look.
    8. Calendar
    9. Camera
    10. Clock
    11. Podcasts
    12. Nav apps (Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps)
    13. Audible (actually, I think I’ll delete that one now)
    14. Kindle (useful, but not addictive)
    15. Yelp
    16. Fitness apps (MyFitness Pal, MapMyRun, Fitbit)
    17. Stocks
    18. 1Password
    19. Music (Spotify, Amazon Music, Ecoute Music Player)
    20. DropBox, Google Drive
    21. Scannable
    22. Fandango
    23. Photos
    24. And a bunch of apps not even worth mentioning, that I’ve crammed into folders, like my TMobile app, Word, Notes, Reminders, Find iPhone, Voice Memos, Calculator, Contacts, iTunes Store.

Note that this is still an extremely smart phone. But I’m happy to say that, after just a month of use, I’m no longer addicted to it. To the point where I’ve lost it, forgotten it at home on outings, and just generally don’t think about it anymore. Meanwhile, I can very honestly report that this has had exactly zero impact on my professional life, and if anything I probably send and receive less frivolous email now. I am always within 10 feet of an actual computer, so if I desperately need to check email, I can take 3 steps and do so. Same for most other functions.

The short story here is that there are many legitimate ways in which smart phones can enrich our lives, by placing data, music, photos, and organizational tools at our fingertips, without these devices needing to be so addictive and taking over our mental lives entirely.

Many people are entirely happy spending 12-16 hours in constant dialog with a device, and deeply value the connections they maintain on social media on a moment-to-moment basis. For me, the addictive properties of the tech began to outweigh these benefits, which I can also get on a laptop with minimal effort. The result has been that I recently decided to resubscribe to magazines (because suddenly I have moments of boredom), and that I’ve started reading fiction in a way that I haven’t in years. Also, people around me have noticed. My wife is naturally quite happy that my attention isn’t constantly 25% somewhere else. But also I was able to tell my daughter that her iPad was going away, without any complaint on her part. This was shocking, I must admit, but I guess she must have detected the importance I attached to this, when she saw me deleting my own iPad, and lobotomizing my iPhone. I’m not entirely screen free, and don’t aspire to be, given all of the remaining advantages of the medium, but I think I may have regained control of my mind and internal processes.


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