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Are you winning the competition for your attention?

Is modern technology turning us all into Pavlov’s dog? If you managed to stay awake in Psychology 101, you’ll remember Pavlov’s famous experiment where he manipulated dogs into salivating at the ring of a bell because the dog associated the bell with food. Now let me ask…when your phone vibrates, what do you do? Could you just…not look at it? If you’re like us, you break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

We know what you’re thinking: “That’s not even the same thing! I’m not a dog.” Well, the truth is that your phone vibrates for nearly the same reason. It is an extensively thought-out feature designed to get your attention and trigger an automated response. The vibration of your phone, the red notification bubble on your Facebook page, or even the email pop-up at the bottom of your screen - these are all just modern-day bells. Which I guess makes us modern-day dogs (metaphorically, of course).


It’s not me… it’s my lizard brain.

Have you ever pulled out your phone to make a call and found yourself (half an hour later) shamefully lost in the bowels of YouTube, creeping a stranger’s Facebook profile, or browsing for who-knows-what on Amazon? It’s a pretty common modern-day experience and we’re here to tell you it’s not your fault. The truth is that today’s technology is designed to do just that. It hijacks the primitive parts of our brains – our lizard brain, as it is often called – in order to get and keep our attention.

Many experts are starting to question the ethics and impact of this kind of design – in particular, on our mental health. One such voice is Tristan Harris, a young Silicon Valley big-wig who left his position at Google to pursue what he feels is the greatest threat facing humanity today – a crisis of attention. Harris is a former student of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab where tech entrepreneurs seek to master the principles of “behaviour design” – a euphemism for designing technology to prompt specific desired behaviours. Many of the lab’s alumni have gone on to hold key positions at Silicon Valley’s giants (think Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat – even one of the co-founders of Instagram is an alum).

In the lab, students study the psychology of behaviour change – such as how clicker training for dogs can be applied to software design for humans. (And you thought we were exaggerating with the dog metaphor). The reason the principles of “behaviour design” have been so successful is that they tap into our basic human needs, such as social approval and belonging, where we are most psychologically vulnerable.

His experience with these principles is the reason that Harris is perhaps perfectly suited to lead the charge against this type of design. Often referred to as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” Harris calls his phone “the slot machine in my pocket”, and the analogy is more accurate than you might think. One of the main reasons our phones are so irresistible is that they offer “variable rewards” such as messages, images, and “likes” that could appear at any time. Variable rewards are what make slot machines so addictive. Studies have shown that it is the unpredictability of the rewards – the anticipation and receiving of rewards – that creates an addictive dopamine loop and keeps us checking compulsively.



Wait, can you really be addicted to your phone?

Yes. You really can. NYU professor Adam Alter suggests that 40 percent of us have some form of internet-based addiction, with the average millennial picking up their smartphone 150 times a day. And, as technology creeps further and further into our lives (can you say, Artificial Intelligence?), scientists and researchers are growing increasingly concerned with how this shift in behaviour is impacting our lives – in particular, our mental health. Here is what some of the latest research is saying:

  • You underestimate how much you use your phone (by a lot): research suggests that the average person uses their phone for five hours a day, checking it an average of 85 times during waking hours. However, when study participants were asked to estimate how many times they checked their phone, they reported only about half of the actual number. It’s for this reason that many of us have such a hard time identifying how much time we actually spend on our phones.
  • Fear-Of-Missing-Out (FOMO) is a real thing: A number of studies have drawn significant connection between social media, and increased feelings of social anxiety, comparison, and inadequacy – otherwise known as FOMO. In a self-fulfilling loop, we often subconsciously turn to social media to make us feel better (hello, dopamine!), only to be left feeling worse thanks to FOMO.
  • Phone addiction actually changes your brain: one significant study measured the balance between levels of gamma aminobutric acid (GABA) with glutamate-glutamine (Glx) in teens (say that five times fast). GABA is responsible for slowing and inhibiting brain signals, while Glx causes neurons to become more electrically excited. The balance of these two neurotransmitters is essential for a number of brain functions, including motor control and emotions such as anxiety. The study showed that teens with smartphone addictive behaviours showed significantly higher levels of GABA. They also showed a correlation between this imbalance and clinical depression/anxiety.
  • Your cell phone hurts your sleep: a number of studies have shown strong correlation between total screen time and poor sleep. The primary cause of this is the blue light emitted by screens which disrupts our circadian rhythm (our internal clock). This doesn’t just leave you feeling sleepy – disturbing those rhythms can significantly increase your risk for a number of physical and mental health problems.


Well, that doesn’t sound good. What can I do about it?

After he left Google, Harris started an advocacy group called Time Well Spent which works to reverse the effects of this attention-crisis. While he believes that big-picture change is needed to address how technology is being built to hijack our attention, he does also offer several simple strategies that you can use today to reclaim your attention, and put down that slot machine phone. We’ve summarized them here:

  1. Turn off all notifications except from people: you know those little red bubbles that appear whenever you have a notification? Just turn them off – except from apps where real people are trying to communicate with you (like text messages, WhatsApp, etc.)
  2. Go grayscale: those colourful icons may look pretty, but they also have a drawing effect on your psychology. Use your accessibility options to change to grayscale.
  3. Try keeping your home screen to tools-only: the less you see it, the less likely you are to open it. Use your home screen for practical tools like maps, notes, calendar, (and GSC on the Go!) etc.
  4. Charge your device outside of the bedroom: get a separate alarm clock so that you don’t get sucked in by your phone before you even get out of bed.
  5. Go cold turkey: for the bravest of the brave, just remove your social media apps from your phone. It’s the easiest way to cut back, and you’ll save battery life!
  6. Call or send audio notes instead of texting: bring a little voice-to-voice back into your life! After all, studies show that text messages are easily misinterpreted, while voices are rich with tone and easier to understand.
  7. Download apps and extensions that help you live without distraction: there’s an app for almost anything these days, so it’s no surprise that you can download apps to remove that blue, sleep-disrupting light from our screens, track your daily phone usage, or block access to certain apps/sites for a set period of time (among others). Use this list of apps to get control over your phone usage and reclaim your attention.

Another great tool you can use? Mindfulness. This study conducted among teens showed that mindfulness traits helped participants make thoughtful decisions when it came to their phone usage, rather than acting automatically. That meant they spent less time looking to their phones for comfort and distraction, and when they did find themselves distracted by their phone, they were better at snapping out of it. Another study found that practicing mindfulness for just eight weeks resulted in reduced grey matter in the amygdala (a.k.a. your lizard brain).

This is just one of the many benefits that practicing mindfulness can have on your mental health, and we hope you will check out GSC’s mindfulness program (if you aren’t among the thousands who already have, that is.)


So what happens now?

Well, with the evidence of modern technology’s negative impact continuing to build, there is a larger conversation brewing in Silicon Valley. As big tech firms battle one another for an ever-larger share of attention (and, let’s be honest, advertising dollars) some are starting to question if they have missed the mark in providing value to their customers. We will leave this blog post with some inspiration from the man leading the charge towards responsible technology:  


“The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.
We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.”

― Tristan Harris