Can we all unplug just a little bit more? The results of the smartphone detox

Last month, I deleted the majority of the apps on my phone – social media and email included.

40 days later, I’m still here, alive and kicking.

It was hard. I tried to tell myself that I was better than the person next to me who couldn’t look up from his phone screen, but the truth is, I was jealous and I wanted a fix.

It made me wonder – what is it about our devices that’s turned us into a bunch of tech addicts?

Random Reinforcement

Let’s take a trip back in time to the 1950s, and the lab of psychologist and behavioral researcher B.F. Skinner, who conducted a series of famous experiments with rats.

Here’s the gist of it:

Two groups of rats are given a lever to press. One group gets a treat every time they press the lever. The other receives a treat at random. Sometimes, they’re small, other times they’re large, but most of the time, there’s nothing at all.

Skinner observed that the rats who were given rewards at random intervals pressed the level more obsessively than the rats in the predictable group.

It seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t rats (and human beings for that matter) work harder when the reward was predictable?

Turns out, no. We’re not always motivated by predictability. We tend to work harder and behave more compulsively when the rewards are inconsistent.

This is one of the reasons slot machines and lottery tickets are so popular. Even if the odds are stacked against us, small payouts happen with enough frequency to keep us playing… and to keep the dream of hitting that jackpot alive.

Behold, the power of random reinforcement.

“Variable rewards seem to keep the brain occupied… Bizarrely, we perceive this trance-like state as fun. This is because our brains are wired to search endlessly for the next reward, never satisfied. Recent neuroscience has revealed that our dopamine system works not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but to keep us searching by inducing a semi-stressful response we call desire.” – Nir Eyal

In short, it’s more exciting.

We’re attached to our devices because when we check email and social media, we don’t know what to expect. Most of the time, there won’t be anything new or interesting, but every now and again, something worthwhile will pop up on our screen that lights up our brains. An email from a friend, a funny status update, breaking news.

And that’s what keeps us hitting refresh again and again and again.

[On a completely unrelated note, I’m going to try the variable rewards system with my children and their chores. Now I understand why they do not respond to gold stars and quarters for more than a day or two.]

To Smartphone or Not?

Here’s my conundrum: the experiment is over, so what do I do now?

One part of me wants to be able to check and send email and social media updates on my phone. It’s convenient and fun, and I enjoy checking in on what’s going on with my family, friends and networks whenever I want.

But the other part of me knows that once I re-install my apps, I’ll fall back into the same addictive patterns that I want to avoid. Sadly for me, there’s no middle ground.

The truth is, as much as I claim to dislike it, this digital detachment has been good for me. I like that the first and last moments of the day do not include technology, that I interact with people on a more individual level because I call, email, and text more, and my face to face conversations are more meaningful because I’m not constantly clutching my phone.

I’m rediscovering my micro moments too – those quick minutes and seconds that I would normally spend looking at my screen. I’m finding more presence by looking up and paying attention to the things around me. It’s not profound or life changing, it’s just nice.

So I guess my conundrum isn’t really a conundrum at all. The choice is easy: I’m not going to reinstall my apps.

I’d like to continue to detach myself from the things that distract me and waste my time. If I really need something, or want to share something, I can access it pretty quickly. The majority of the time, though, it can wait.

And finally, I want to set a good example for my kids, who are becoming more immersed in the digital life every day. I think I speak for a lot of parents when I say that I want them to keep a healthy distance from technology. Which means that I have to walk the walk.

They won’t like me for it. And sometimes I won’t like me for it.

But at the end of the day, we all have to unplug just a little bit more.

One Comment

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *