Correction: In the print version of this article, it was incorrectly reported the “Like” documentary screening date was Friday, Feb. 27. The correct day is Thursday, Feb. 27. The online article has been updated.
Consider your smart phone. Chances are, if it’s not in your pocket (or using it to read this article), you probably know exactly where it is.
In fact, according to a 2013 Facebook-sponsored IDC Research report that surveyed nearly 7,500 people between the ages of 18 and 44, 79 percent of respondents said they keep their smart phone with them for all but two hours of the day; a full quarter could not recall a time during the day when their phone was not at least within in the same room, if not in direct arm’s reach.
It seems likely those numbers have only increased, as smart phone ownership and usage has risen over the last seven years. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of adults who have smart phones spiked from 35 percent in 2011 to 81 percent in 2018, and Common Sense Media — a nonprofit media and tech review and advice organization — tracked smartphone ownership among teenagers shooting up from 41 percent in 2012 to 89 percent in 2018. Other studies show more than half of children have a smart phone by age 11.
In many ways, that growth in popularity makes sense — smart phones are the tech equivalent of a multi-tool, replacing the screwdriver, mini saw, and nail file for the ability to make phone calls, take photos, and even pay for groceries.
But are you using your smart phone? Or is your smart phone using you?
That’s just one of the many questions posed by the 2018 IndieFlix film, “Like: A documentary about the impact of social media on our lives,” which is screening at Enumclaw High School from 6 – 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27.
“Like” may focus on smart phone and social media usage by teenagers, but it has lessons every age group can learn from, said Gordon Baxter, the clinic manager of Enumclaw’s Valley Cities, which sponsored the film coming to the area.
“It’s at that earliest stage of a trend where there’s enough information to cause us pause, [but] not quite enough information for us to be able to drill down and start naming diagnosis and getting cautionary announcements,” he said. “We are seeing some trends that are giving us some concerns, particularly in adolescents. But also, I have a very small private practice that I do online — working more and more with couples, screen time, more frequently, is becoming more of a concern… we’re finding that an overabundance of screen time tends to get in the way of healthy person-to-person interaction.”
That opinion is likely already shared by many, but even the IndieFlix CEO and the documentary’s director, Scilla Andreen, said she was blown away by exactly how widespread the issue already is. She added making the film helped her confront her own smart phone abuse, where she wasn’t just using her phone for communication and work and travel, but it was literally the first thing she would pick up in the morning and the last thing she put down at night.
Andreen wasn’t alone; that 2013 IDC study showed that nearly 80 percent of the people surveyed picked up their phones within 15 minutes of waking up, and 62 percent reported they grabbed it immediately after waking.
“But the nice thing is, now I’m aware of why I’m on my phone so much, and I have so much more control and balance and discipline with my phone, which I’ve never had before,” she continued. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Part of regaining that autonomy, Baxter said, is just realizing how purposely addictive smart phone usage is.
“Their spin would be, [smart phones] are not necessarily addictive, just uber convenient. You can’t say no,” Baxter continued. “The convenience of it, the effectiveness, the potency of the connection you make — audio and visual — you’re absorbed in it pretty easily,” he said.
The IDC report said something similar: “The more we use our phones to connect, be productive, etc., the more value is delivered to us. IDC believes this perceived value makes our phones and applications stickier, which in turn encourages even more use.”
SOCIAL MEDIA USAGE
It’s impossible to talk about smart phone usage and not mention social media. According to Common Sense Media, the number of teenagers who used social media multiple times a day increased from 34 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2018.
Additionally, 57 percent of the teens surveyed said social media distracts them from homework, and another 54 percent said it also distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re currently with. This makes sense, given that the average person worldwide spends more than two hours on social media per day, according to Statistica.com.
It’s that massive amount of time spend on social media that is a problem, Andreen said, rather than just social media in general.
“If you only spend 20 minutes on social media, you actually stay in the safe zone, and you won’t fall into this regret — being filled with regret — or addiction. Brain chemicals change after 20 minutes of repetitive behavior, this endless scrolling,” she continued.
The Center of Humane Technology conducted a study of 200,000 iPhone users, tracking how much time they spend on various apps, and whether using the app for that amount of time made them happy or regretful. The study revealed that those who spent an average of around 20 minutes on Facebook reported being happy, whereas those who spent an average of 60 minutes said they felt unhappy. Other social media apps, like Instagram and Twitter, followed the same pattern.
Whether you come away from social media happy or unhappy may be a result of how much dopamine your brain produced while on a platform; a little dopamine can be good, but too much can have the opposite effect by inducing stress, anxiety, and even temporarily damages the brain’s ability to focus and encourages you to multitask, according to a January 2019 Medium article.
But tech companies aren’t looking to give people healthy amounts of dopamine, Andreen said.
“The platform’s designed to get us to be on site. Time on site — that is how they measure the value of the company,” she said. “They don’t care if you sleep or eat or whatever.”
A 2018 article from The Guardian said much of the same: tech companies have figured out how to give people “dopamine surges” to create “compulsion loops” and keep their product as “sticky” — a.k.a. addictive — as possible.
“Positive social stimuli will… result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli — laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones — activate… dopaminergic reward pathways,” reads a May 2018 Harvard University Science in the News blog post. “Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a ‘like’ on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”
MANAGING SMART PHONE HABITS
There are many strategies for breaking bad smart phone habits and limiting use, both Baxter and Andreen said, from turning off notifications, using apps that track how often you’re using your phone, or even wearing a watch so you stop checking your device for the time.
One strategy that appears to be rather successful has been turning a smart phone’s display to grayscale. According to a Dec. 2019 Wired article, “going grayscale removes positive reinforcements and dampens that urge to keep loading up social media feeds or mobile games,” according to Tristan Harris, the founder of the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit that aims to insert mindfullness into technology and prevent how “technology hijacks our minds,” its website reads. (The “Like” documentary also draws data from the CHT).
“When your phone is on grayscale, it’s just black and white. It doesn’t light up the brain in the same way it does like when it’s in color,” Andreen said. “Your brain naturally doesn’t want to look at it.”
But whatever you try to do to limit your smart phone and social media usage, Baxter said, you should do it consciously and intentionally.
“It’s basic habitual behavior,” he continued. “It’s habits, and we have the power to affect our behavior that way.”
While there is much to be cautious of when it comes to smart phone and social media use, Baxter, Andreen, and the “Like” documentary don’t want the film audience’s takeaway to be that these modern technologies are bad.
Baxter said he’s seen many examples of how phone use and social media has helped and hurt his patients, from being able to connect to a special group that gives you the kind of support you’re looking for to worsening anxiety disorders and depression.
“I just want people to wake up and pay attention,” he continued. “That’s 90 percent of most of what we want to talk about anyways.”
And for Andreen, “Like” is about taking back what’s yours — your body, your brain, and your time.
“This movie was made because we believe technology can be used to enhance the human condition, and to bring out the best in ourselves,” Andreen said. “It’s not about getting rid of your phone… we love our phones. We just want you to be in charge, and not the phone.”