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Menthal: lessons from the app for smartphone addicts

Young smartphone users in Seoul. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP/Press Association Images

A few years ago, Alexander Markowetz realised that “the mobile phone thing [was getting] a bit out of hand”. The assistant professor at the University of Bonn noticed that he was using his smartphone more than he probably should, and others around him complained that they too were hooked.

Research on the topic until then had relied to a large extent on self-reporting – test subjects maintaining diaries of their smartphone usage. Markowetz and a team of multidisciplinary researchers at the university wanted to get more exact information on how people interact with their phones. The solution was simple: there should be an app for that.

Since its launch in 2014 Menthal has been downloaded around 300,000 times. It tracks smartphone usage ranging from the amount of time you’ve spent on your phone to the apps you interacted with the most and the amount of times you flicked your screen on and unlocked your phone.

All data generated is relayed to the University of Bonn, where a team of computer scientists and psychologists analyse it for a dual purpose: to look at the way people interact with their phones for its own sake, and to examine if it’s possible to infer someone’s mental health state – and possibly disorders such as depression – by looking at how they are using their phone. To do that they compare phone usage with twice-daily mood reports collected from users (a sliding scale between a frowny face and a smiley face).

Menthal provides its users with what Markowetz refers to as “the scales for your digital diet”. And if he’s right, it’s time we start paying attention to what those scales are saying.

Digital burnout
Menthal’s users spend an average of about two and a half hours a day on their smartphone. That’s a lot, Markowetz says, though it’s worth bearing in mind that the study is far from representative. “My mum sends one SMS per week. She’s not afraid of cellphone addiction and she would never install this app,” he explains. Instead, the study reflects the behaviour of a group of people Markowetz refers to as homo digitalis, “the people who largely experience life and function through digital media”.

The scary bit isn’t the total amount of time logged interacting with the smartphone, Markowetz claims. It’s the daily amount of screen-ons (about 80 on average) and unlocks (between 50 and 60).

Markowetz fears that the frequency with which we interrupt ourselves will lead to “fragmented lifestyles of constant interactions, constant multitasking and switching between different things.” Developed in the 1980s, Attention Restoration Theory asserts that people need about 15 minutes of focusing on an intellectual task to reach a state of flow. Interrupting ourselves every 12 minutes with a check for new notifications would therefore mean never reaching that stage of deep concentration, and struggling to get things done. Flow, Markowetz adds, is also necessary to experience happiness. “If you rule out flow experience, you make yourself unhappy,” he says. “And this leads to a novel situation – a situation where you’re both unhappy and unproductive.” He calls this “digital burnout”.

According to Markowetz we shouldn’t feel too guilty about our excessive smartphone usage. “Using the phone is not deliberate behaviour, it’s an unconscious automatism such as smoking and gambling,” he explains. Smartphones, Markowetz argues, are not too dissimilar from slot machines in that they dole out rewards at random intervals. When you get rewarded, the motivational hormone dopamine is released into your brain, compelling you to push the button again.

“It’s the same mechanism,” Markowetz says. “It’s been decorated like email or Tinder or Facebook, but inside it’s a slot machine: one button, one surprise, dopamine, whoo hoo! – let’s do it again.”

Digital dieting
If all this has left you feeling terrified by the idea of being permanently tethered to a smartphone, mindlessly pushing its screen to check for new notifications for hours at a time, there’s no need to panic yet. There are ways of countering our unconscious behaviour. One is to install a series of hurdles which unconsciously nudge you away from your phone – by relying on the principles of procrastination.

Humans constantly need to decide between different tasks, Markowetz says, and we do that by calculating the utility of the task and how long it takes to get there. “Going on YouTube and downloading a kitten video takes you one second. It’s a relatively little reward, but you get it right now,” he says. “This makes it look better than doing something big which is more important, but will take you the next three hours of your life.”

Creating artificial delays can make checking your phone considerably less interesting, Markowetz says, because you’ll increase the time spent to get the same reward. Putting your phone in your backpack or bag instead of your pocket is one way to do this – you’ll have to put the backpack down and rummage through before you get access. Another way is to only allow yourself to use your phone in certain sections in the house. If you want to go extreme, you could even use a kitchen timer and force yourself to wait three minutes every time before you’re allowed to check your screen. This, says Markowetz, will help make the phone “super-unimportant”.

Markowetz himself isn’t quite there yet. “This started by looking at my own entirely insane behaviour, and I think it might have gotten mildly better,” he says. He’s had a lot of media attention in Germany, which he takes as proof of an uneasiness in society with the way we use our smartphones. But he adds that our knowledge about what works in kicking the habit is still embryonic. “I’m still searching,” he says. “And so is everybody else.”

Menthal is available for Android in the Google Play store. For our German readers, Markowetz’s book Digitaler Burnout will be released in October. 

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