Mobile apps: You use, you lose, warn campaign groups

The Center for Humane Technology and Common Sense want to warn kids about mobile apps they say are addictive

Credit: Common Sense

Anti-drugs campaigns were such a success, a group of Silicon Valley insiders are hoping to use a similar strategy to turn teens off technology -- or at least teach them to use it responsibly.

The Center for Humane Technology warns that mobile apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube are designed to addict us, and are eroding the pillars of our society.

And now, along with Common Sense, a nonprofit that serves children and families, it's launching a campaign to "protect young minds from the potential of digital manipulation and addiction."

Among the damage that attention-seeking apps can cause, the groups list cognitive disorders, depression, loneliness, stress, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, loss of productivity and a lack of critical-thinking skills.

The two groups hope that by providing children and families with more information about how online media work, they will be able to pressure the companies behind them to make them less intrusive and less addictive.

The Center for Humane Technology was co-founded by Tristan Harris, its executive director and a former design ethicist at Google.

He's calling on app developers to turn things around: "Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible," he said Monday.

How long is possible? In 2015, a survey for Common Sense found teenagers consumed an average of nine hours of digital media per day.

For users wanting to reduce social media consumption without going completely cold turkey, the Center offers some simple steps. Number one is to turn off mobile app notifications that aren't from real people -- so, for example, you might turn off alerts from Facebook, which are likely just exhortations to visit the website and keep you "engaged," but keep alerts from Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.

Making it less stimulating to look at your mobile phone by turning its display to grayscale using the accessibility settings is another easy one. Making it more difficult to open social media apps in moments of boredom takes more effort. You can do this by moving the relevant icons to the second page of apps on your phone, not the home screen, or by hiding them altogether so that you can only open certain apps on your phone by searching for them by name.

Lastly, the group advises, don't keep your smartphone charger in your bedroom: Leave it to recharge its batteries somewhere else while you recharge yours.

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Peter Sayer

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