Self Help

Digital distraction has produced its own self-help industry

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The other evening, while in a dash to finish my work, I made the mistake of glancing at my smartphone. To my horror I discovered I had been added to four new WhatsApp groups.

The messaging was frantic. It felt like being dropped into a children’s party with a group of three-year-olds all clamouring for my attention.

To say this was disappointing is an understatement. I had added WhatsApp to my phone in the hope that it would become a discrete channel, diverting messages away from my overloaded email in-tray. Instead, like Mickey Mouse in the Disney cartoon Fantasia, commanding a broom to do his work, my shortcut did the reverse — instigating a deluge, in my case, of information.

So it seemed like a blessing when I was handed a copy of How to Break up with your Phone, a book by Catherine Price. Do you find yourself spending more time on your phone than you realise, the author asks? Yes. Do you wish you could be a little less involved with your phone? Yes, yes, yes. Price recounts the dopamine-fuelled excitement that comes from receiving a “like” on Instagram, or even just the anticipation of a new message in our email inbox.

On the one hand people complain about being deluged, but on the other they can’t allow themselves to be bored. Price cites research by the University of Virginia and Harvard University that, in 2014, found participants in an experiment would rather give themselves a small electric shock than be alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

Yet the cumulative effect of riding the app merry-go-round is an inability to focus, poor memory and mental fatigue. Her solution? A four-week regime to change our dependency on our smartphones. Ditching them entirely would not be in our best interests — what about all the useful stuff? The camera, the books and encyclopedias on tap.

Price’s book is not the only product on the market to help people deal with their supposed “tech addiction”. There are now apps that block other apps, such as BreakFree, Flipd, or AppDetox. Dumbphones — those stripped back mobiles that only handle calls and messages — are experiencing a resurgence on the back of fears over our impending digital degeneracy. Then there are detox weekenders and festivals that claim to help you unplug and recharge.

But hold on, haven’t we seen this before? The tech detox programmes mirror previous dieting regimes. Want to lose excess pounds? Fast two days a week, as with the 5:2 diet. Or stay off carbs and feast on meat, as recommended by Dr Atkins.

The language used in programmes to curb our digital excesses is similar to that employed by diet gurus. We “graze” or “snack” on unsatisfying apps, ruining our appetites for nourishing literature.

I worry about my inability to focus. After bingeing on Instagram or Twitter, I have chastised myself for the time I have wasted.

Yet there is a new feeling that nags: that smartphones are the latest target for the self-improvement movement (which is ironic, as so many apps exist that help you count calories and measure your steps).

Just as the diet industry has repeatedly reinvented itself, so this next wave of self-help, dealing with digital addiction, will probably do the same, making consumers feel guilty about their lack of self-restraint (a charge which Price denied when I put it to her in the latest FT Business Book podcast).

Surely some of the blame lies with Big Tech, just as it does with food companies?

Last year, Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said: “It’s a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

There are glimmers of hope. At a recent conference, The Truth about Tech: How Kids get Hooked, Tristan Harris, a former in-house ethicist at Google, implored tech companies to “change course”, according to Quartz magazine. “We have to redesign all of it with a more compassionate view of human nature,” he says.

Until that day comes, I will probably continue to swing between guilt over tech blowouts and delight with my new digital treats.

emma.jacobs@ft.com

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