Smartphone users "go gray" to curb addiction

black and white forest though iPhone
Public Domain MaxPixel

When a smartphone screen is switched to black-and-white, it loses much of its appeal -- which can be a good thing.

Smartphones have been called the cigarettes of modern society. Once viewed as a form of social lubricant and trendy entertainment, cigarettes fell from favor once their health effects became apparent. Similarly, the smartphones that captivated our attention in the mid-2000s are now being viewed suspiciously for their addictiveness.

Because of this, increasing numbers of people are choosing to 'quit' smartphones, much as they did with cigarettes in prior decades. And similarly to quitting cigarettes, killing the smartphone addiction requires some nifty tricks (unless you go cold turkey, in which case there's an entire burgeoning digital detox industry).

One such trick is "going gray," or switching the screen to grayscale, a.k.a. black and white. This is a growing trend, according to Nellie Bowles in the New York Times. The whole idea is to make the screen far less attractive and appealing, thereby reducing the amount of time one is inclined to spend on it.

Bevil Conway, who works for the National Eye Institute, explains the science behind the switch:

"Color’s not a signal for detecting objects, it’s actually something much more fundamental: It’s for telling us what’s likely to be important. If you have lots of color and contrast then you’re under a constant state of attentional recruitment. Your attentional system is constantly going, 'Look look look over here.'"

That is why, if you unlock your phone to check an important appointment or address, you might end up scrolling through Instagram -- because that pinkish-yellowish-rainbowish icon is just too irresistible! This makes sense. Imagine if we went back to the black-and-white days of TV. I suspect wasting an evening on Netflix would be far less common.

While individuals will continue to find their own solutions to tech addiction (or not), there are many who think 'Big Tech' (curiously reminiscent of 'Big Tobacco') should step up to the plate, taking responsibility for the addictive products they've created. This is what investors demanded earlier this month when they told Apple to do more to protect children's interests.

Hannah Kuchler writes for the Financial Times:

"The big tech companies will have to work out how to respond to this new generation of quitters. Facebook is the first to go public with its attempt, hoping its recent move to slash memes, brands and news from its newsfeed will make the social network feel more homely — filled with friends and family who encourage us to stay."

Some think Apple is the company best positioned to effect change, as it doesn't make money directly from hooking people on apps, but controls the devices that the app and social media companies rely on. As Farhad Manjoo explains,

"With a single update to its operating system and its app store, Apple could curb some of the worst excesses in how apps monitor and notify you to keep you hooked (as it has done, for instance, by allowing ad blockers in its mobile devices)."

But until Big Tech figures out how to walk the line between social responsibility and maximizing profits, worried smartphone users will continue to explore options like going gray. These are the people who, as Mack McKelvey puts it in Nellie Bowles' article, realize "there’s a vibrant world out there, and my phone shouldn’t be it."

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