(this was originally written in March of 2018, but I didn’t finish it at the time, and didn’t publish. now in 2022 i stumbled into this post on an old laptop, with no memories of writing it; but the topic is as relevant to me today as it was then. publishing as-found)

As many others, for some time now I’ve struggled with a “phone addiction”. I am becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact daily phone usage has had on me, and just starting to think about longer term, social implications. While this topic has been beaten to death (i.e. this Spiegel article from 2016), my personal experience suggests that the situation is getting worse.


  • information is highly addictive (and often soothing), especially in bite-sized chunks
  • frequent interruptions over the long term are harmful to our cognitive abilities
  • always-connected phones are the ultimate enablers
  • phone addiction feels like a form of mental illness
  • human intertia and incentive structures suggest that tech experiences will not change for the better without our active participation
  • pessimistically extrapolating current trends creates a scary vision of the future

There is an excellent Russian phrase which applies quite well: “the rescue of the drowning is the task of the drowning themselves”. So many of us are drowning in this neverending sea of tweets, instagram posts, comments, headlines, facebook updates. We can’t wait for the tech companies to come to their senses and remove “engagement metrics” from their quarterly goals, change product monetization strategies, etc. The various incentive structures are too powerful, the problems aren’t well understood, and freedom of our minds is on the wrong side of the barricades.

If I’m being optimistic, I can see how our current use of phones will seem just as harmful and unhealthy in the future as smoking cigarettes is starting to seem today. The pessimist in me sees an Orwellian future enabled by Brave-new-World-ish patterns and “manufactured consent.” It’s a slippery slope: an addicted population with diminished cognitive abilities is a prime material for manipulation. Add to the mix rapid iteration, excellent metrics, tools such as A/B testing This kind of manipulation is already happening, both by private companies and state actors; I’m sure what we’re reading about in the news is just a tip of the iceberg.

The culture

Here are some of the more obvious changes I’ve noticed in myself:

  • it’s much harder to focus
  • consuming larger chunks of information is more and more difficult
  • keeping focus for longer periods of time is more difficult
  • reading literature and long-form content is difficult
  • I’m often disconnected from what’s going on, from people around me
  • I’m not “mindful” of “the moment”
  • information that i am consuming isn’t “sticking” as well, it’s harder to form “webs of knowledge”
  • it’s getting harder to think through problems that aren’t “tweet-sized”
  • etc, etc, etc.

While there are a lot of other environmental factors, it certainly feels that phone usage - and in particular, obsessively checking Instagram, Twitter, HackerNews, WhatsApp groups, select subreddits, etc - is one of the main culprits. Oftentimes, spikes in phone usage happen when I’m more stressed or particularly anxious: safe, consistent information intake provides a short-lived relief, an escape, and comes with a brief calming effect.

But there is a dark side here: over time, frequently “tapping” into the phone for a relief creates a different kind of anxiety, with largely misunderstood longer-term implications for our cognitive abilities. I can only observe some of the more obvious changes by comparing how I feel now versus how I rememeber feeling at some point in the past. I’m sure there are more subtle changes.

Comment threads are particularly interesting. They’re highly addictive, as I’m sure a lot of reddit and HN users will attest. Often, I’m choosing what article to read mainly based on how many comments it has (e.g. on HN). I don’t even read the original article, just the comments. This is painfully obvious to anyone who frequents such websites, but it’s helpful to actually spell out. While reading a large comment thread I get a feeling similar to what it feels walking into a loud room with lots of overlapping conversations going on all at once. It’s similarly deafening, except that it’s the outside world that is tuned out. As I’m reading through a thread, people’s voices are reading out these comments - just like a poor, low-resolution version of imagining book characters. It’s not a pleasant experience, it’s been getting worse over time, and yet it’s oddly addicting.

While websites like HN and reddit aren’t just accessible via phones, the always-connected, always-there nature of phones turns them into ultimate enablers. Our tiny little pocket computers allow for unscheduled, frequent, mindless interruptions, during which the mind is washed in a flow of information and thoughts of others, images and projected feelings - all for a brief moment until the phone is tucked away. Rinse and repeat, every 15-20 minutes, every day, for years.

Imagine trying to focus on a task, and then suddenly stepping into a loud room, listening to a few monologues and conversations for a few minutes - all entirely unrelated to what you’re trying to achieve - and then going back to whatever you were focusing on. Your attention span is gone, and context switching will be hard.

While this pattern isn’t new, the latest iteration of information overflow is certainly proving to be the hardest to fight against. Several years ago, I’ve deleted Facebook, which helped a lot at the time. Several years before that, I’ve deleted most of my chat applications (MSN, ICQ), and found that I gained hours of free time in each day. Both of these actions had very concrete social implications: I’ve largely stopped interacting with a number of people. This was a good trade-off, as long as my social network doesn’t disappear entirely.

I do enjoy a lot of benefits of having a smartphone: decent enough camera, instant access to information, communication with my friends and family, keeping a log of what “interesting” things I’ve been up to (via Instagram), mapping applications, podcast app, music, various utilities, backup emergency communication, etc. Quitting cold-turkey feels like a wrong way to approach this problem.

Instead, I’m making subtle changes to what my phone feels like. The goal is to turn it into a tool as opposed to a slot machine”