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  • How can apps help people to reduce their smartphone usage?
  • How can apps help people to reduce their smartphone usage?
    Yelp Inc. (2019) ©

How can tech train users to build healthier habits?

As people become more aware of the impact of tech addiction, they’re looking to develop a healthier relationship with their devices. Canvas8 spoke to Maths Mathisen, CEO and co-founder of Hold and a Nudgestock speaker, to find out whether smartphone overuse might be the new smoking.

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In April 2019, Apple announced a crackdown on apps that fight phone addiction, as the brand created its own screen-time tracker. Over the course of 2019, Apple has reduced visibility for apps that aim to help people limit their device usage. According to The New York Times and app-data firm Sensor Tower, the company removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most-downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, either by forcing companies to remove parental-control features or completely removing them from the App Store, while also implementing a clampdown on other lesser-known apps. [1]

With 79% of Britons checking apps in the hour before they go to sleep and 55% within 15 minutes of waking up, it’s become a round-the-clock habit we’re struggling to kick. [2] But with a third of US and UK consumers expressing concerns over the mental health impact of their smartphones, many are taking matters into their own hands. [3] The study, contacted by the Global Web Index, also found that 7 in 10 have tried to moderate their digital consumption in some way, whether by deleting apps or notifications, taking breaks for hours at a time, or moving their phones out of their bedrooms. Becoming more aware of the negative effect that technology can have on their lives, people are looking for ways to build healthier habits, which, somewhat ironically, is becoming a key field of interest and competition for tech companies.

Hold incentivises users to ignore their phones by incrementally rewarding them with points they can exchange for rewards through the app’s wide range of business partners. Hold’s founders, who launched the app when they were students, claim it helps to increase productivity by as much as 62%. The app is now used by half of the students in Norway and across Northern Europe. “Hold is a tool to change the way you interact with your phone. We want to help you have a balanced approach to it. For us, it’s about teaching and using positive reinforcement to make sure that you use the phone in the right way. Basically, you use the best side of tech to combat the worst,” says Maths Mathisen, CEO and co-founder. [4] As this year’s insights partner for Nudgestock – the UK's largest festival of behavioural science – Canvas8 took the opportunity to speak with Mathisen, a guest speaker at the event, to find out how technology can actually help people reassess their relationship with devices and build healthier habits. 


The impact of device addiction
Device addiction is touted by many as an epidemic. “We spend 76 days a year on our phones. Most of the time, to consume and not to actually produce,” says Mathisen. “Games and social media are created and tailored to make sure we’re addicted. They make sure when we click a button, dopamine goes through our body.” [4] There has been a growing interest in the effects of technology on wellbeing, yet no one has quite nailed how to master more humane device design. “While phones are now becoming a more and more important part of daily life, we still don’t have tech that has been developed for humans’ best interest. It’s developed to make sure you consume as much as possible. But there’s too much information, your body can’t actually consume it all, and we're seeing how this affects human interaction, or our ability to process information.” [4]

A Microsoft study revealed our attention span decreased from 12 to almost six seconds – the impact of constant technology use on attention has started to become more apparent. The same is true for productivity. [5] “When you check your phone for just one second, you believe that you can go straight back to work or straight back to something else, but it takes 23 minutes to go back again to the same amount of productivity levels that you had,” explains Mathisen. [4]

These concerns are fueling a burgeoning public debate in the tech industry, with more people and organisations advocating for different types of regulation or more ethical design approaches. “When smoking first arrived in the market, it was a gift – it was amazing, trendy, cool, but you didn’t see any problem connected to it. Then the industry had to change throughout the years, now they need to package tobacco in a certain way, and talk about how it affects you.” So could smartphones be the new cigarette? Cigarettes are harmful to a person’s physical health in a much more serious way, and although smartphone addiction isn’t healthy, Mathisen believes the behaviours around its usage need to change.

40% of British adults check their phone within five minutes of waking up
40% of British adults check their phone within five minutes of waking up
Juan Bello (2019) ©

A more nuanced understanding
“Some think it’s the government’s job to make guidelines to help us use our devices, or that it’s the government’s job to force tech companies to revise their guidelines or set limits on maximum usage,” explains Mathisen. “More and more people don’t like the idea of wasting their time. When they’ve finished scrolling through, for many hours, they feel that they just wasted all their time.” [4] For most, this scrolling amounts to two kilometres of content a day – double the amount most (physically able) Britons can walk in that time. [6] Research by the University of British Columbia in Canada showed that keeping one’s phone out during a family dinner results in people being less happy with the experience of the meal. [7] Constant use of technology doesn’t only impact the user, it is often seen as a sign of disrespect and can erode personal relationships. According to a study published in 2016, 70% of the women surveyed thought that smartphones were negatively affecting their romantic relationships. [8]

“Why is it that the top leaders in Silicon Valley don’t necessarily use iPads? Why is it becoming a trend in Silicon Valley to disconnect?” [4] As a response to device overload, tech companies have started to employ measures to combat the negative effects of technology use. Brands like Apple and Google recently launched new features that allow people to monitor how they use their device and certain apps. “But they could also do a lot more. Right now, screen ban is only showing you how much time you spend on your phone. They haven’t provided us with a tool to actually break that habit. Screen-time monitoring just makes you feel bad afterwards,” says Mathisen. [4]

Hold is a tool to change the way you interact with your phone. We want to help you have a balanced approach to it

Maths Mathisen, CEO and co-founder of Hold

In fact, while one Reddit reviewer of Apple’s iOS 12 Screen Time function says, “I’m actually really thankful for this feature. I had no idea how much I was ‘disconnected’ from the people around me by staring at a glowing screen. Was eye-opening in a good way!”, another user says, “Since I installed iOS 12, I’ve begun to have anxiety and guilt about how much I use my phone, with the sole reason being the Screen Time app watching my every move. Understanding how much you use your social media is one thing, but recording how many times I pick up my device is really taking its toll on me.”

The roots of the problem seem to be in the approach behind a lot of the technology that we use in our everyday life. “Facebook, Instagram, and similar services have hundreds of people that work only to make sure that their users use their product more and more. They make sure they set that color of that specific item to red, because red has that specific effect on your brain. It all comes to how thee design changes affect your attention,” says Mathisen. “We need to build tech that adapts to our human interest and not the other way around. What is happening now is that we adapt our behaviour to technology, since tech is able to condition human behavior, to make sure we keep on scrolling. I think that down the line, we’ll need to find a way to make sure that humans are in charge again.” [4]

Apps are trying to get people off their phones and into real life
Apps are trying to get people off their phones and into real life
녹색당 사진 (2019) ©

Towards a healthier relationship with tech
The growing awareness of the problem might naturally force Big Tech to reassess its business model. With more people trying to build healthier tech habits, companies will need to start designing more human-centric products and services, instead of just focusing on capturing users’ attention. “In the long term, tech players that don’t want to act according to users’ best interests will probably either die out or decrease in use,” says Mathisen. [4] People’s interest is already shifting towards services that help them to save time.

One of the dilemmas is balancing the company’s interest in increasing use with people’s interest in feeling good about themselves. For Mathisen, the growing pressure from users in the long term will help make sure that businesses’ interests incorporate users’ wellbeing.“Being able to connect what’s best for the user’s wellbeing will hopefully be better for the company, as well. There will definitely be a change there. The company’s interest will be to have people that feel good about themselves. By using their tool, people will be able to improve their wellbeing, and the companies will actually help them.” [4]

While tech companies use behaviour-modification techniques to keep people glued to their devices, Hold is applying these same techniques to actually help them make meaningful use of their time. “You get a commercial prize from them, or you get some recognition from your friends from being on top of your high score. We use a lot of the same mechanics as tech companies use in order to keep you addicted, like streaks and high scores. We will make sure we use it in a positive way to make sure that you learn how to use it, and develop a balanced approach to it.” [4] Mathisen says that positive reinforcement is key for users to feel happier with themselves and like they did something productive. By playing on positive reinforcement, reward systems, as well as the social element of sharing, these services can help people to gradually change their behaviour, build more positive habits, and feel less dependent on their devices.

72% of American Gen Zers think they’re too distracted by social media
72% of American Gen Zers think they’re too distracted by social media
Yelp Inc. (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
Research is proving the positive effects of curbing phone addiction. A study published in the Journal of Communication Education revealed that student participants who put their phones away during class “wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones.” [9] Research also suggests parents need time off from their devices just as much as their children, especially since kids tend to learn smartphone habits from their parents. [10] Apps, brands, and platforms that can integrate with family life and help them connect could help build family ties and boost feelings of togetherness.

The average Briton checks their smartphone every 12 minutes, and 40% of adults do so within five minutes of waking up. [11] In fact, 61% of British Gen Zers believe they are using their device too much, and 61% of Britons wish they could sometimes disconnect from their devices. [12][13] Similarly, 72% of American Gen Zers think their peers are too distracted by social media. [14] However, following through on these good intentions is often hard. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that although 65% of Americans believed that digital detoxes were good for their mental health, only 28% of them reported actually taking action to limit their screen time. [15] Moment tackles overuse this by limiting daily usage and can even kick the user off the device once they’ve hit their limit.

People welcome help from services that help them take action in a more holistic way to reduce their reliance on tech devices. Headspace , for example, allows users to audit their behaviour and be mindful of how digital time is spent. Other companies are providing solutions that help people minimise their tech usage, cutting their dependence on tech to the bare minimum. For example, the Nokia 8110 was relaunched by HMD Global with 4G connectivity, limited app capabilities, and a 17-day battery life, as an option for people who want to stay in touch without being tempted into constant connectivity. Google’s Be More at Home campaign is celebrating people’s desire to reassess their relationship with tech so they can regain control of their attention and spend more quality time with their loved ones, as the tech giant is trying to reimagine the role that technology can play in helping people achieve this.

1. ’Apple Cracks Down on Apps That Fight iPhone Addiction’, The New York Times (April 2019)
2. ’Mobile phone addiction? It’s time to take back control’, The Guardian (January 2018)
3. ’1 in 5 Consumers are Taking a Digital Detox’’ Global Web Index (September 2018)
4. Interview with Maths Mathisen conducted by the author
5. ’You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish’, TIME (May 2015)
6. ’Mark Eaves: How far do you think you scroll each day?’, The Drum (September 2018) 
7. ’Using Your Phone At Dinner Isn’t Just Rude. It Also Makes You Unhappy’, TIME (February 2018)
8. ‘Is ‘technoference’ hurting your partner?’, The American Psychological Association (February 2016)
9. ’The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning’, Taylor and Francis Online (August 2012)
10. ’Parents need screen time limits, too, pediatricians say’, Reuters (August 2018)
11. ’A decade of digital dependency’, Ofcom (August 2018)
12. ’Smartphone Britain: Nearly half of Brits think their partners overuse their devices’, The Telegraph (September 2018)
13. ’How often do you feel like disconnecting?’, Canvas8 (March 2016)
14. ’Has Gen Z OD’d on social media’, The Drum (January 2018)
15. ’Forget FOMO. In Digital Minimalism, It’s All About The Fear Of Burning Out’, Fast Company (April 2017)

Featured Experts

Maths Mathisen

Maths Mathisen is the CEO and co-founder of Hold, an app that incentivises students to put their phone down, and is now used by over half of Norway's student population.


Edoardo Biscossi is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. He has a degree in Politics and an MSc in Consumer Behaviour. He’s interested in culture, people, art, the future, the niche, and the mass.