Our smartphone addiction is killing us – can apps that limit screen time offer a lifeline?

We’re squandering increasing amounts of time distracted by our phones. And that’s taking a serious toll on our mental and physical well-being.

Perhaps ironically, software developers themselves have been on the forefront of efforts to solve this problem by creating apps that aim to help users disconnect from their devices. Some apps reward you for staying off your phone for set periods of time. Others “punish” or block you from accessing certain sites or activities altogether.

But over the past year, Apple has been removing or restricting some of the top screen time or parental control apps from its App Store, according to a New York Times analysis. At the same time, Apple – which cited privacy concerns for removing the apps – launched its own screen-time tracker that comes pre-installed on new iPhones.

Limiting iPhone users’ access to other types of apps is a bad thing because certain ones may work better for some people than others. And research by myself and others shows that excessive technology use can be problematic. In extreme cases, it is linked to depression, accidents and even death.

But what makes some apps work better than others? Behavioral science, my area of expertise, can shed some light.

Why we need help

Technology is designed to be addictive. And a society that is “mobile dependent” has a hard time spending even minutes away from their app-enabled smartphones.

In 2017, U.S. adults spent an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day using their smartphones and tablets. This is double the amount from just five years ago, according to an annual survey of internet trends. Another survey suggests most of that time is spent on arguably unproductive activities like Facebook, gaming and other types of social media.

This addiction has consequences.

The most serious, of course, is when it leads to fatalities, like those that result from distracted driving or even taking selfies.

But it also takes a serious toll on our mental health, as my own research has demonstrated. One experiment I conducted with a colleague found that looking at Facebook profiles of people having fun at parties made new college students feel like they didn’t belong. Another study suggested that people who spent more time using social media were less happy.

Ultimately, our phones’ constant connection to the internet – and our constant connection to our phones – means that we miss out on bonding with those that we care about most, lowering everyone’s happiness in the process.

Some selfies just aren’t worth it. Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock.com

Trying to unplug

The good news is that most of us aren’t oblivious to the negative effects of technology and have a strong desire to disconnect.

As you might expect in a market economy, businesses are doing their best to give us what we want. Examples include a Brooklyn-based startup selling bare-bones phones without an internet connection, hotels offering families discounts if they give up their mobiles during their stay, and resorts creating packages built on the idea of creating sacred spaces where consumers leave their devices at home.

And app developers have also risen to the challenge with software aimed at helping us use our phones less.

Goal setting is key

Apple’s screen-time app is a good first step because it shows you how much time you are spending on apps and websites – and possibly raise some red flags. However, many apps go much further.

Research suggests that you should download applications that ask you to set specific goals that are tied to concrete actions. Making commitments upfront can be a powerful motivator, even more so than financial incentives.