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Want to Kick Your Smartphone Addiction? Do a Digital Detox

Believe it or not, there’s an app for that


spinner image a woman breaking out of a smartphone with glass flying
Photo Illustration: Paul Spella; (Source: Getty Images (4))

When your phone dings with a notification, do you find yourself scrolling through social media or playing a game afterward?

Experts know the reason for such Pavlovian reactions and habitual use.

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App makers have gotten clever at not only keeping you interested, but keeping your eyeballs there and wanting to be there,” says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor and coauthor of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Once notifications activate your curiosity, smartphones are designed to ensnare you with messages from friends, news stories and entertainment.

“It’s difficult for your brain to shake that,” he says.

Smartphones seem to lure young adults more

The younger you are, the more likely you’ve become entranced, at least according to the limited research that’s been done on daily smartphone use. Young adults 18 to 24 self-reported the most daily minutes of smartphone use based on a 2020 survey of Australians that Plano, Texas–based Dynata market research conducted for Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), an Australian public TV network, and published in the September 2021 issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

People 20 years older spend 70 minutes less on their smartphones each day, the study’s authors said. And survey participants who were another 20 years older reduced their smartphone use by another 70 minutes.

More than a third of all respondents told researchers they thought they spent too much time on their smartphones, used them even if they had more important things to do, found it difficult to turn off their devices and felt anxious if they didn’t have their phones.

Can apps cure smartphone overuse?

Focus apps discourage you from using your smartphone. Some have productivity timers, which are de­signed to keep your eyes off your phone with virtual rewards.

When you open Forest, $3.99, you grow a tree in the app. When you close out to use other apps, the tree withers.

With the free Focus Dog app, the longer you stick with your timed focus session, the more points you get. Your points become doughnuts fed to a cute dog.

Other apps use a stick instead of a carrot. DTCH, $9.99 a month or $59.99 a year and only for iPhones and Apple Macs, makes your phone vibrate when you unlock it. Sometimes it won’t stop until you’ve put it down.

And Offscreen Pro, $4.50 a year, shocks you with numbers, tracking hours of phone usage and how often you unlock it. The idea is to give you options to deal with distractions.

You can retrain your brain without an app

Rosen says that the apps can get frustrating and suggests a different tactic: Reeducate your brain to focus.

Start with 15 minutes away from your phone. Maybe set an old-fashioned timer that’s not on your smartphone. Work up from there until you can be away from your phone for longer stretches.

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