Putting apps in their place

There's a time and a place for devices, then there is time to turn them off. Photo: Getty Images
There's a time and a place for devices, then there is time to turn them off. Photo: Getty Images
We're meant to be the ones running the apps, not the other way around, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

Many of us will have whiled away time at the end of a digital device. Many homes in New Zealand will have access to a computer, laptop, tablet or smart phones or several of those options. Most of New Zealand, though not all of it, has access to the internet. In 2018 it was reported that 89% of Kiwis were active internet users, that's a fair chunk of us!

The computer and internet were intended to increase our freedom, give us more options and tools, make information more readily available and give us more control over our lives. Indeed, it has done all of that and a whole lot more, possibly in ways no-one could have predicted. Like it or lump it we are living in a digital world and there's no going back now.

I'm not sure I'd even want to go back. I love looking up recipes online, reading articles that interest me, storing my photos, keeping in contact with friends and family all over the world, not to mention using the GPS and navigation system in my car, very useful. I also enjoy having fun on my various devices, puzzles, games and checking out my favourite cartoons. The laptop and smartphone are great work tools too.

However, like most things too much can be harmful and there will always be unscrupulous people who will take advantage of a situation. When it comes to our digitally focused lives it turns out that some of the application (app) developers, driven by paying advertisers and marketers, have been purposefully developing some apps to be addictive. Hooking us in to spend more and more time on them.

Tristan Harris is one of several ex-developers who has spoken out recently about the techniques used. He's started a movement to call for more ethical app development (see tristanharris.com). He speaks about the persuasive psychology principals being deliberately applied to technology to induce us to use it in certain ways. In short, we are being manipulated. Rather than giving us choice and control over our lives they are designed to suck us in and get us to spend as much time as possible on them.

That's important to any company whose business model is based on advertising. The more time we spend scrolling, swiping and clicking the longer we are exposed to advertisers or in-app purchases and the more likely we are to spend money. They care how much time we spend on our devices. Many tech companies are directly competing for where and how we spend our time - with friends, our families. Even sleep has been named as a competitor to device time.

Our brains are wired to seek rewards and novelty. Each time we swipe our phone or open an app, check into Facebook and twitter (and all other social media apps) we get a shot of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. Like striking the jackpot on a slot machine that hooks us in to keep dropping money in the slot, dopamine does the same to our brains. But dopamine is fairly short lived and so we need to keep on swiping, clicking and scrolling in order to keep feeling good. To be clear it's not the devices that hook us in it's the apps and programmes we use.

What's the problem with any of this? I guess it depends on your viewpoint but every day you see people head down while out walking, in restaurants, at the lights or while driving, in the middle of conversations with others, staring at the screen in front of them. People start to get jittery if their device isn't around or the battery runs down. Increasing screen time is taking us away from each other, being outside or generally taking part in other richly rewarding activities.

So how can we get around this? Going cold turkey, complete withdrawal isn't really a smart idea, it can be distressing and ultimately useless. Besides, there are many good reasons to use our devices for work and play. Both Harris and Stephen Guise, blogger and author of the book Mini Habits (stephenguise.com), suggest taking a more mindful and conscious approach to using our digital technology. Here are some suggestions


Start with the indispensable tools you use. These are the ones that aid you to do a certain task but can't suck you down endless rabbit holes as you click, swipe and scroll, e.g., camera, maps, calendar, notes etc. (This doesn't include email.)

Then include any apps that you aspire to spend more time on, e.g., meditation apps, podcasts, audio books, potentially life-enhancing apps.

All the rest go into folders on the following screens. You have to be more conscious about using them rather than automatically just opening them. Colourful app icons visually trigger us to unconsciously consume, just like bright confectionery wrappers entice us to snack on them. Keep the colourful apps hidden.


Consider using airplane mode at night and into the morning, perhaps until after you're up and sorted for the day. It sets the precedent that your device is not the most important thing, because you're starting your day with other important things.


It's incredibly inefficient to check social media and email multiple times per day. Every time you get a notification and drop your current task to check it, you've lost focus and time and will have to try to regain them later. You'll save a lot of time and energy by checking email and social media fewer times per day.


This one is simple and flexible. You can spend your social media time however you wish, and limit your overall time.

Whatever you decide, keep it simple and don't think of it as deprivation (because it isn't), it's limitation.

By limiting your consumption, you are increasing your enjoyment of these sites and eliminating the considerable down side of wasting too much time on them at the expense of other rewarding activities.


Take time out each weekend and put your devices away.

When you're out with friends keep your devices in your bags or pocket, keep the focus on human interaction. When you're driving keep your phone somewhere you won't be tempted to pick it up!

Devices are a part of our world. They are not "bad" per se, they can be incredibly helpful and fun. The thing to understand is how the apps and programmes are put together and what effect that can have on us. Developing a mindful approach to how you use your devices might just help us to make the most of the good points while limiting potential harm.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.



Add a Comment





Local journalism matters - now more than ever

As the Covid-19 pandemic brings the world into uncharted waters, Otago Daily Times reporters and photographers continue to bring you the stories that matter. For more than 158 years our journalists have provided readers with local news you can trust. This is more important now than ever.

As advertising drops off during the pandemic, support from our readers is crucial. You can help us continue to bring you news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter