This Digital Life

Going Gray

Is Muting Temptation a Viable Solution to Phone Addiction?

By Alex Tzelnic

A recent New York Times article entitled “Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?” discussed the phenomenon of “going gray”: purposefully changing one’s phone screen from color to grayscale in order to make it a less alluring and addicting object. After a few days of going gray, the author notes, “It’s remarkable how well it has eased my twitchy phone checking, suggesting that one way to break phone attachment may be to, essentially, make my phone a little worse.”

Muting temptation is certainly one way to deal with reality. Humans have employed this method for millenia, from forcing women to conceal their bodies in excess clothing to restricting where and how cigarette companies can advertise. It seems we long ago decided that it is far easier to modify our world than to learn how to cope with the enticements it presents. Now cell phones have only compounded this problem, offering access to those enticements at our fingertips.

Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, which aims to build a more humane and less addictive technology ecosystem, is one of the advocates for going gray, popularizing the concept in an essay for Lifehacker. As Harris points out, we simply are no match for the “slot machine” that is in our pocket, filled with apps carefully designed to steal our attention. A study by Nokia found that the average person checks their phone 150 times per day, or about once every six-and-a-half waking minutes.

Our attachment to smartphones wouldn’t be an issue if screen time was a clear indicator of well-being. But new research is suggesting that quite the opposite is true. In one study, participants left their smartphones outside of their bedrooms for one week, and showed small improvements in quality of life compared to a control group who continued to use their phones normally. In another study, people eating at a restaurant found their meal less enjoyable when smartphones were present on the table. Swiping in apps has been found to resemble the same kind of dopamine hit as addictive drugs like cocaine. Despite owning devices that can keep us constantly connected, it seems our rampant phone usage is engendering rampant disconnection.

Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies phone use and teen behavior, discussed the extent of this disconnection in an article for The Atlantic. She first began to notice evidence of teen isolation in 2012. It was, she notes, “exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.” The statistics are bleak. Today’s teens hang out with their friends less, are less likely to drive, date less, are more likely to feel lonely, and are less likely to get enough sleep. Even bleaker: “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide…As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”

Given these findings, a strategy like going gray might seem like a viable option. But making the product we are already addicted to less appealing is a solution that doesn’t quite address the gravity of the situation. In the context of widespread anxiety, depression, and isolation, it feels like a band aid rather than an solution. Of course, smartphones are so integral to most people’s lives that simply doing away with them would be both impractical and impossible. So what can be done?

Rather than modifying our external reality, a more lasting response may be to understand the root cause of our impulses and to work with our minds. After all, the hardware we have the most access to is our own, and understanding how we are wired may be more fruitful than attempting to re-wire our world. Oren Jay Sofer, a dharma teacher who focuses on communication, agrees that methods like going gray can be helpful. “Simple strategies like turning off notifications, moving social app icons off the home screen, or gray scale all help reduce the pull and addictive allure,” says Sofer. But he sees more hope in recognizing how this pull arises.

“Information consumes attention,” says Sofer. “The more information, the less free attention. I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are millions of dollars being poured into the design of these devices to make them addictive, to grab, capture, and keep our attention,” says Sofer. “From my view the primary release comes from the process of observing, restraining, and understanding our impulses. Meditation practice thus becomes a radical act of reclaiming our free attention.” Indeed, several studies have shown that meditation improves attention and self-regulation, the very things that are under siege in the smartphone era. And for an increasingly isolated generation, meditation has been shown to improve social-emotional resilience in children.

Allen Weiss, director of the Mindful USC initiative, sees mindfulness as a tool that can be helpful not just as an overarching practice but when the actual impulse to reach for our phone arises. “Turn your phone to gray but also consider the experience from a mindfulness standpoint,” says Weiss. He advises a thorough questioning of the moment. “Don’t just go into autopilot, but consider: Is it a need to avoid a sense of boredom, a difficult emotion, or the feeling of being left out? Do certain actions, like checking your email or social media, make you feel better or worse?”

“Technology and social media promise satisfaction and connection. If we’re paying attention we see that they don’t deliver,” agrees Sofer. “Finding more nourishing ways to feel content and fulfilled, to experience a sense of belonging and place, are also important factors in reducing the allure of our devices.”

Going gray may be a practical first step, but truly resisting temptation means learning to feel content despite the constant deluge of content. This puts the onus of responsibility back on ourselves, rather than our phones, cigarettes, or women’s bodies. In taking responsibility and being mindful we can begin to understand that though the world is designed to capture our attention, what we do with it is ultimately up to us. “When you’re not hungry,” concludes Sofer, “there’s no need to eat.”

Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA.

Photo by Aaron Lau on Unsplash.

One comment on “Going Gray”

  1. Ron Jones says:

    Great article. Just recently I’m seeing more articles like this, that is, articles on the ‘digital attention crisis’ that talk about OUR side of the crisis rather than technology’s side. Both are important, but I agree wholeheartedly that improving our ability to manage our own attention is the key. Indeed, if we get a movement going to nurture this idea and practice, we may look back on this social media/mobile revolution as a true blessing, finally prompting us to pay attention to, well, our attention, and learning how to better master it.

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