New app trend promises technology intervention

The first step is admitting there’s a problem: smartphones are addictive.

Seventy-seven percent of millennials (adults ages 18 – 34) own a smartphone, according to a 2014 study by Experian Marketing Services. The same study found that the average owner spends 14.5 hours a week using that smartphone.

“It [the smartphone] is essentially attached to their [students’] bodies,” said Karen Sierra, a senior in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s gotten to the degree that people no longer know how to be alone. They must either converse, watch or be virtually preoccupied with someone else.”

As technology promises to connect users to a smaller and smaller world, there is a growing hole in the market for technology that does the opposite.


Laren Conklin, a postdoctoral associate in the CAS psychology department, warns that while easy access to social networks through smartphones can help individuals connect with one another, this reliance can be detrimental.

“Some people come to rely on their phones too much, becoming anxious if their battery dies or using it frequently or at inappropriate times.” she said. “People may come to believe they need their phones to cope with uncomfortable situations and may lose confidence they can successfully cope with that situation without it.”

Feeling that draw himself, Luke Thomas founded Digital Detach, an app that temporarily locks down a smartphone to limit its capabilities to just phone calls and text messages.

“I was the guy who had the flip phone last year. My friends thought I was an old man, but I noticed they were constantly checking their phone. They couldn’t even take a break to study for a class,” Thomas said. “Fast forward — I got a smartphone and noticed that when I was bored, my instant reaction would be to aimlessly browse on Reddit, Twitter, etc. Meanwhile, I was also complaining about how I didn’t have enough time in the day.”

However, disconnecting is easier said than done, Conklin said, because smartphones also serve as tools of social reinforcement.

“They help us feel connected, entertain us and provide us with convenient sources of information,” she said. “They also can serve to reduce feelings of anxiety or uncertainty for people … For instance, smartphones can reduce uncertainty about how people are doing socially. ‘How many people have liked the picture I posted?’ ‘Has that guy I like texted me back yet?’”

In Conklin’s eyes, apps like Digital Detach can be used to help people set limits. If they have to have that validation and distraction, at least they can cut back.

“For instance, if a student wants to study for an hour, they could use an app like this before starting. During their study time, the app will help the student stick to the goal by keeping them from mindlessly surfing the web or social media during the time they set out to study,” she said. “Reasonable alternatives like putting the phone out of reach or turning it off may not always be ideal.”

Another option, then, is not to cut off distracting connections, but instead keep them separated from the necessary ones. Meredith Flynn-Ripley is the CEO of HeyWire, a Cambridge-based company that aims to separate business text messages from personal text messages through Business Messenger, an app that launched on Jan. 15.

“The Business Messenger app is not only letting the business have a business identity and have insight into all of these text-based business conversations, but it’s also letting people separate their business and personal communications,” she said.

While Flynn-Ripley is a technology advocate, she said attention should also be paid to the offline world.

“You do need to set boundaries, and technology can help us put more control in place,” she said.

Chen Shi, a School of Management junior, said the separation of different communication channels could help some people, but apps like Digital Detach probably won’t reduce smartphone addiction.

“Looking at their phone or not is a choice that people make, and the app can’t help people make a decision on spending less time on their phone but themselves,” Shi said. “If people realize they spend too much time on their phone, they can just turn off the Wi-Fi or just turn off the phone. I don’t see extra value added by the app.”

Either way, unless those who are technologically connected find some way to cut back, Conklin said, it goes without saying that the problem will only get worse.

“It’s not really in the smartphone industry’s interest to help us become less reliant on smartphones,” she said. “Thus, unless people make the decision for themselves to become less reliant on smartphones and facilitate some level of independence from technology, I believe the trends we have observed in increasing smartphone dependency will continue.”

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  1. Plz help me get free text on my phone