New App Aims To Tackle Smartphone Addiction
The debate surrounding smartphone addiction is in many ways a sign of our times, but it also raises crucial questions about how we define addiction.
Are we addicted simply because we use our Internet-equipped cell phones a lot? Anybody familiar with addiction knows that it isn’t as simple as this, so the argument that our growing use of the devices represents a widespread addiction—while not necessarily wrong—oversimplifies the situation.
However, when you consider other behavioral addictions such as gambling—including the impact they have on the brain—it’s clear that smartphone addiction is a real condition. So how do we reduce our smartphone addiction? In this age where there seems to be an app for everything, it was only a matter of time before we encountered something like Instant, a new app that aims to tackle smartphone addiction.
Smartphone Addiction 101
The definition of addiction is the key issue when discussing smartphone addiction, and despite the historical viewpoint that only substances could lead to addiction, behavioral addictions to things like gambling or sex have forced us to reexamine that way of looking at things.
The reason relies on the neurochemistry of addiction: drugs are addictive because of the effect they have on natural brain chemicals such as dopamine. Other activities (like gambling or playing video games, for example) have a similar effect on these chemicals.
For smartphone addiction, it can also help to look at the situation in a more straightforward way. Addiction is characterized by tolerance (needing to do or take more of something to get the same effect), withdrawal (negative side effects when the substance or activity is stopped) and being unable to control the behavior despite negative consequences.
Signs Of Smartphone Addiction
Based on this, it’s clear that someone who has the following signs is potentially addicted to their phone:
- spends increasing amounts of time on his or her smartphone
- feels anxious or panicked when he or she is separated from it
- gets in trouble at work or school (or whose relationships suffer) due to smartphone use
Although only a small proportion of people are prone to full-blown addiction, as with alcohol, somebody who uses it too much could be considered a “problem” smartphone user.
Tracking Smartphone Usage In A Simple Format
Instant (available on Google Play for free and Blackberry World for 99 cents) is made by Indian startup Emberify and has fairly basic functionality. It records the number of times you unlock your phone and then keeps track of the amount of time the screen is left active. The accumulated data for each day is then displayed on a simple bar graph, making it easy to get the information you need at a glance. Other attempts at accomplishing the same thing, such as an app called Frequency, have focused on the time spent on specific apps, so Instant’s focus on overall smartphone-usage time makes it easier to digest what is effectively the same information.
According to company founder Shashwat Pradhan, “Instant works on the same principle of fitness trackers, with graphs and limit reminders.” The “limit reminders” basically allow you to set a limit on your daily usage and give you reminders of how much time you have remaining at user-designated intervals throughout the day. Pradhan has reduced his daily smartphone use from 120 to 50 minutes, which he attributes to an increased awareness of his usage habits.
New App, Instant Helps Problem Users, But What About True Addicts?
Instant is a promising development for more everyday users who’ve developed some problematic smartphone usage habits, but its stated goal of reducing smartphone addiction seems suspect. For a problem user, the regular reminders and daily limits indeed have the potential to promote awareness and thereby make it easier to say when enough is enough. This isn’t a trivial benefit—most people who use their smartphones too much will fall into this category, so it has the potential to avert growing issues for many of us.
The people Instant is highly unlikely to help are the addicts. To understand why, think about what the equivalent would be for substance users. It’s like saying to an alcoholic: you can drink five beers today, but no more, and I’ll give you reminders every few hours of how many drinks you’ve consumed. Would that defeat alcoholism? No! One of the hallmarks of addiction is attempting to limit yourself but being unable to do so. An alcoholic may have all the best intentions of drinking only five beers from a six pack, but the whole issue is that when that final beer is staring him or her in the face, best intentions are discarded and the remaining drink is cracked open.
Realistically, Instant is even more limited than the above example. For one, the limit is self-imposed, so individuals may not be strict enough in their goals. More importantly, the app is just that: a piece of software that you’re highly unlikely to feel like you have to answer to. You’ve gone over the limit? So what—nobody needs to know about it, and there is no punishment. Finally, as with all addictions, psychological support is a necessity to understand what drives the behavior and to teach the individual better ways to cope without it. Addicts struggle to get clean alone because addiction is a complex psychological issue that most people need professional support to effectively overcome.
Smartphone App Potentially Helpful, But Not For Everyone
There are many people whom Instant has the power to help, but sadly those who need it most will have inadequate support. Perhaps in the future, there will be a similar app incorporating psychological support with interactive lessons and coping tips that may actually help addicts. For now, Instant is a fantastic option for problematic smartphone users, but true addicts are still better off with traditional treatment approaches.