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Are you another victim of the attention economy?

Are we turning into 'phone zombies'? Zoning in on our phones may mean we're zoning out on a more fulfilling life. Kate Little from physicianburnout.co.uk explains the risks, and how to win our lives back.

“Mummy, you’re not listening” my son says.

“Mmmm. Sorry, I have just got to reply to this e-mail and I’ll be right with you”

Only I get side-tracked and the next thing I know is that I am checking the What’s App and Facebook notifications on my phone. An argument breaks out at top volume around me.
Sound familiar?

The problem is that we all feel negative after this. And when I reflect back, the whole episode was my own doing. But what is it about our devices that are so compelling and addictive that we lose sight of who we want to be at times.

The Digital Age and Inf-O-besity

We now live in a fast paced, information-overloaded digital world. An age of “Infobesity” with multiple competing demands on our time and attention.

More and more people are working flexibly or from home and with that the boundaries between work and personal life have become increasingly blurred,

Research has shown that the average person checks their phone at least 150 times a day and that an average user touches their phone on average 2500 times a day, a high user, well over 5000 times! The average e-mail goes unread for a mere 6 seconds!

We get sucked in, often without realising it. And this is intentional design, using slot machine psychology.

The Ludic Loop

Ludic is Latin for playful. The Ludic loop, coined by arthopologist Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design, is a cycle of repeating the same activity because every so often you get a reward.

Schull studied users of slot machines in Las Vegas. Users get drawn into a repeating cycle of inserting coins, pulling the handle and hoping for hit the jackpot. But because the reward is not predictable, our attention is grabbed - we don’t want to miss that slim chance of a win - and it becomes compulsive.

A similar loop applies with our e-mails and social media. You pick up your phone – it has been at least 5 minutes after all - you glance at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and then take a peek in on your email. Once you have done that a few more notifications appear on Facebook so you check that again. Before we know it, 30 minutes has passed.

The attention economy

In his article, “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind – from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist”, Tristan Harris explains how product designers “play our psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against us in the race to grab our attention.”

We think that we have free choice, but in reality it is the product designers who are controlling our choices. They do this upstream by designing the menu of options that we are offered, for example, our news feed and the Auto-play on You-tube and Netflix. They play on our fears of missing something important and our need for social approval and reciprocity.

According to Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible – Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching”, we enter a zone of “Flow” when we use these products, a zone where we become so immersed in the task at hand that we lose perspective of time.

There is no longer an end point. In his TED talk “Why screens don’t make us happy,” Alter argues that the one reason is that they “rob us of stopping cues,” that signal that it is time to move on to the next activity. In the past, for example, we would watch a TV show, it would end and we would have to wait till the next week to watch it.

Why does this matter?

As Alter observes, much of our screen time is not making us happy. And the problem, as we have seen, is that we are on our devices a lot.

Digital natives (those born into the world of laptops and mobile phones) spend on average 8 ½ hours a day exposed to digital technology and brain scans are showing that this negatively affects emotional aptitudes like empathy.

Our pocket slot machines are with most of us 24/7. Young people check their phones on average 10 times a night. We go to bed with them. We wake up to notifications that we check before we have even got out of bed.

We are constantly on high alert, and this has consequences.

Excessive screen time is linked with introspection, depression and anxiety and reduced sleep. Have you ever checked your e-mail late at night and then lost sleep afterwards? I certainly have.

Reduced sleep affects our mood and behaviour and the way we eat so that we make less healthy choices, and so a vicious cycle develops.

In addition, products like Facebook can fuel our insecurities further as we compare ourselves unfavourably to others who post images of their “perfect” lives. We see the parties and social events that we perhaps weren’t included in and this can exacerbate our already fragile egos.

There are effects on our productivity: people are distracted through the working day, when at home and through the night, further affecting sleep and performance, the most popular activities being gaming and shopping.

Most of us are also aware of the addictive power of our screens, and of cyber-bullying and exclusion, particularly in young people, but perhaps less aware of the impact on those that we care for. A health visitor I know observed recently how more and more children are commenting that they wished that their parents weren’t on their phone so much. So, it is not just the use of screens in our children that we should be monitoring, but ourselves too.
So what can we do about it?

Here are some hacks to becoming a Digital Rebel:

#1 Unplug

  • Take regular breaks to go offline even if for a minute or two.
  • Spend some time in nature every day, unplugged. Notice the colours. Listen to the sounds. Move about.
  • Actively connect with people face to face, unplugged.

#2 Set a Digital Sunset

  • Set a warm filter on screens in the evening.
  • Invest in amber glasses to reduce the blue light if you do have to use your screen.
  • Invest in an old fashioned alarm clock with no LED display.
  • Leave your phone outside your bedroom.
  • Stick to no screen time one hour before you go to bed.

#3 Alter the set-up of your phone

  • Create an essential home page screen, moving distracting apps like Facebook and e-mails to the second page.
  • Stop notifications or hide them in folders.
  • Launch your apps without unlocking your phone by swiping up the Control
  • Centre like you would do for your camera. This way your phone remains locked, reducing the chance of distraction.

#4 Set rules

  • Set a timer on Internet browsing time.
  • Ban phones at the table and in the bedroom.
  • Delete the most time-consuming apps. Replace them with more productive ones.
  • Put your phone out of easy reach when working.
  • Schedule blocks of time at specific times of the day to check your e-mails and social media.
  • Set your phone on airplane mode when you don’t want to be distracted

The power of unplugging

Our screens are miraculous inventions. But as we have seen, the way we use them does not always make us, or those around us, happy.

So, become a digital rebel. Step out. Unplug. Go outside. Feel the grass beneath your toes. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the sun on your back and take a deep breath in. Life will be richer.

"The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it."
Thich Nhat Hanh

This article first appeared in The Sessional GP magazine.

Dr Kate Little MBChB MRCP MRCGP DRCOG DFFP Dip Teaching.
Clinical Champion for Physical Activity, Public Health England
Clinical Lead for NHS GP Health service
Founder of Physician Burnout UK
Founder of Horsley Hub

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