A Bedtime for Your Phone – Overcoming Addictive Behaviors

A few years ago I realized I was trading my family for my phone. I was deep in understanding user behavior and user centered design as part of my work and was digging into apps and how they worked. I was drawn to them, addicted, but didn’t realize it.

It was Emilee, my wife, that first expressed how much she missed me. I started to then hear my kids say things like “oh, Dad is on his phone.” or “Dad can you come outside today.” I realized that I was not in control anymore.

I started to notice that at certain times I would reach for my pocket and not know why. I would be checking my email then somehow end up watching a video about a cat chasing a squirrel.

The impact of addiction

Addiction is indulging in a behavior or substance that has a harmful result and will typically cause anxiety, irritability, nausea, headaches or other withdrawal symptoms when refrained. In addiction typically we know that we are destroying one aspect of our life in exchange for this behavior or substance, but, for whatever reason, are unwilling to stop. Quite often we try and lessen the impact of the harmful result or justify it away so that we feel ok in our indulgence.

Addiction always destroys our mental well being no matter how much we justify the behavior. It doesn’t matter if the addiction is a phone or alcohol it will destroy our mental health. When it comes to our phones our relationships with real people are directly effected through incomplete or irrational comparisons or through the time and attention lost. We only have so much time in a day, if you looked at how much time you are spending as an indication of what you care about, what do you care for most?

Our relationships with real people

When we spend time on our phones we loose our connection with the actual people around us. That has two strong and real effects. You no longer feel that the people around you care about you which leads to a downward spiral of anger and depression and isolation. Others around you feel that you no longer care about them. This sends them in a similar spiral of seeking for and not finding your affection.

The people we care about need actual physical contact. Holding someones hand is a much stronger form of affection and care than a heart emoji and laughing is stronger than an ‘LOL’.

Irrational comparisons

When we interact with social networks we put a very well framed self forward. Even the act of putting an “unframed” self forward is planed and framed. There are so many gaps in communication that we assume certain aspects of others lives. This leads to incomplete and irrational comparisons. We compare the best of others with the worst of ourselves.

This gives fuel to our inner critic allowing it to say things like “You aren’t as good a mother as Jennifer” or “Your marriage isn’t as good as Tom and Kris, see how much she appreciates what he does?”. Regardless of the picture presented and the actuality, your inner critic never compares your shining moments to theirs. It compares your weak moments to what you see of them and often will never let you forget. Everyone has moments of brilliance, especially you! I hope we can dwell there.

Robbing sleep, exercise, and nutrition

In order to manage depression and anxiety you need to have proper amounts of sleep. If you are loosing sleep you are unable to function properly. I find myself feeling like my life is falling in around me. Once I am getting enough sleep I then focus on exercise and proper nutrition. Once all those three things are in place I am in control again.

When you are addicted to your phone you then trade your time. It frequently starts with sleep. There is the actual sleep you are trading. Then there is the sleeplessness that it causes when you are trying to go to sleep but can’t. Reaching for our phones has become such a reflex that it happens even at 3 in the morning when you can’t get back to sleep and keeps you up for a few hours.

In a very similar way it robs you from time outside, working out or playing. Sometimes I have caught myself playing with an exercise app getting ready for my run and then finding I don’t have anymore time for my run. Your nutrition is replaced with fast quick unhealthy options instead of ones that take longer but are better for you because you spent that time with your phone instead.

All of these become drains on your mental health. Yes, the phone is a great thing. Yes we need it, but we need to be the master and not the slave. The first step in that is to be aware that your are stuck in the rut of addiction.

Becoming Aware

I am grateful to my wife and kids for giving me clues in a very direct way. It was hard for me to realize I was addicted. After becoming aware I didn’t know exactly what to do about it. I started to look at some of the patterns from a user experience and psychological perspective and learned some great things.

The war for your attention and money

“Get them while they are young and keep them till they die.” This was an internal slogan of a major food company. They specifically placed products that you love as a child to keep your loyalty through adulthood. It was a statement that showed that they wanted to have good products for all phases of a persons life. However, there is the dark side of the statement. It is the disregard of human life. The person being a casualty of the product. This is really indicative of the war that is going on every day. The war between products fighting for your money.

This isn’t just a war for food. It is a war for you going on in every industry. They use tactics to get you to feel insecure or secure, ugly or beautiful, healthy or a slob, in order to get your money first. Promising you the answer to the problem they often created.

This is a also digital problem. Think of facebook. It is a product that was built to keep you close when you can’t be close. It is a problem that it claims to be solving, but it is the problem, the cause. The increase in superficial relationships is higher than ever before. People now lurk at your life instead of join in, and that includes people that live in your own home. It creates the distance you feel and promises the solution to feel closer.

Just like Facebook, every app on your phone is trying to be the one you go to, the one that is the most important app on your phone. No matter how helpful the app seems, every app is designed to make money either directly or indirectly and if they are looking for money they have engaged in the war and often will use tactics that cause you to be the casualty.

What isn’t there?

There was something I learned from Emilee taking psych. In her developmental psych class we learned there is an age where kids don’t grasp the concept of what isn’t there. You give them two choices, they don’t understand that there is another one. That mentality never completely goes away.

For example, there was a sandwich shop that I loved to eat at. They were a “make your own” sandwich type of a shop. I had a combination that I loved. Then one day I walked in and their menus all changed. Instead of listing toppings they listed sandwiches. The people in front of me had never been there before and looked at the menu to see what was available. I already knew what I wanted, but it wasn’t on the menu. They had no idea of the deliciousness that awaited me. I ordered my old sandwich and enjoyed.

The idea is that if you control the choices available you control the choices that the person can make. You never open your email app to check the weather because they haven’t made it an available option.

If we go back to facebook as an example again, they want you to feel that the only options on the menu are posting and looking at posts in order to stay
close. But there is another way. You can go visit. You can text. You can call. These are all options, but facebook isn’t going to present that option to you.

They are also going to present the option as favorable, not what the option will cost you. For example you get an email that says “Sam tagged you in a photo” and in the email is a button that says “see it”. What the button should say is “Take the next 20 min of my life?”

Next time you look at your apps think about which options aren’t presented to you. Think about what isn’t there and take control of the choices available to you. Think about what the choice is actually going to cost. No app knows your needs. Every option they give you isn’t in your best interest.

Intermittent Variable Rewards

This is a powerful one. I want to explain it in terms of a pysch experiment. Researchers would take a rat and introduce a trigger and a reward. It could be a lever and a treat. If the rat touched the lever it could receive a treat. This test has been done a lot, in essence, you have a control of every time the lever is touched a treat is released. Variables would include a set interval (every nth time the lever is touched a treat is released.), a random interval (every once in a while a treat is released not really based on how many times the lever was touched), and several combinations of the two to see severity of the effect.

The result is that when random interval rewards are involved behaviors are most effectively altered. The subject becomes addicted the quickest.

Take that to your phone. Your phone is like a little casino. You have so many types of intermittent variable rewards. Think about how many times you have pulled on the mail app to see if you had any more mail. Your brain then links your self value on the rewards that come back intermittently. You are loved because you get a like on your post on facebook. This is powerful in creating the addiction on those apps. Social apps are the biggest offenders of this. Promising you popularity and fulfillment through likes, replies, and badges and giving you those rewards at a random interval. So you keep checking and keep posting more to see if you can get the reward.

What Can Be Done?

There are a lot more ways that your phone is trying to control you. If you want to see more you can see this article by Tristan Harris or visit the website of his organization aimed towards breaking the addiction called the “Center for Humane Technology”. You ultimately are the one who decides what gets your attention. You are in control of that. No matter how controlling the apps become, you are in control. Just know apps are trying to control you. Here are some simple things we did to take the control back.

Set a bed time for you phone

After dinner Emilee and I both put our phones to bed. They go on their chargers away from where we are. If you get a phone call you can hear it, or feel it on your watch. There are apps to help you do this and some built right into the operating system, but the bottom line is, you don’t need an app to do it. Just put it away.

I use an iPhone and the screen time feature has been key. Two features in particular. First the App limits for apps that tend to take time without me realizing it. I put a 15 min time limit on it and don’t bypass the limit. The second is down time. It is a time that all apps on your phone go into a restricted mode unless you mark the app as an “Always allowed” app. It gives you an extra reminder than you don’t need to be on your phone right now.

Turn off (almost) All notifications

The little pop ups and little badges that say, “you have something else that is more important to do.”, turn them all off. My rule was that if it wasn’t an essential job it didn’t get a notification. I have notification on texts and calls and a very few other apps that is it. I turned everything else off.

I then get to set the schedule on when I choose to check things. For example, I have just a few times a day I check my email. I check it when I choose to, not when it tells me I should.

Organize your phone

On the first screen of my phone I only allow 4 spots. They are what I have deemed the most essential to be on my phone. Ones that I use for specific purposes often. This makes it so that when I turn on my phone I am not immediately pulled to something else instead of what I came to do.

I also periodically prune my apps. If I haven’t used it, I remove it. If I have used it too much, I remove it. When doing so, I think “if I was choosing between this app and being with my kids, would I choose this first?”

That sets me up for two important things.

  1. Is it essential. For example paying bills and maintaining my bank accounts is essential to me.
  2. Will it take a little bit of time so I free myself up for them. Anything that would take too long is subject to be removed.


I think it is time that we take control of our time. We need to be someone who acts instead of letting other things tell us what to do, what to like, and who to be.

We need to be present. One of my favorite quotes is “Where ever you are, be there”. We went from a generation that was described as “helicopter” to a generation that is “distracted”. I hope we can all make the shift to now be the “connected” generation, to be with who we are with where we are.

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