About a month ago, I stumbled upon a video from Dr. James Hamblin on The Atlantic. In April 2016 he published an article with the promising title “To Break a Phone Addiction, Turn Your Screen Gray”. When I discovered it I asked myself: “Why should I change that and how does this possibly influence the usage of my phone?” As you imagine and know me already, I immediately wanted to test it. I changed my smartphone screen to gray for one month.
Smartphone Usage Insights
Let’s look at some numbers from several studies about smartphone usage first. According to a report from Experian Marketing Services (2014) Millennial smartphone owners (US) spend 14.5 hours a week — more than two hours a day — on average using their phones. Falaki et al. analysed 255 users and conclude that we interact with our phones 10–200 times a day on average. We touch (every tap, type, swipe and click) our smartphone about 2.617 times a day, a study from July 2016 by dscout figured. Can you imaging that? Heavy users (top 10%) showed even higher numbers. The average interactions doubled to 5.427 touches a day. Checkout their study as they also answer questions like “What time of day do people use their phones most?”.
How I got addicted to smartphones
Let’s quickly look into the past and then let’s talk about the experiment. Just a couple of years back.
Before I bought an iPhone 3G, I remember I owned Motorola and Nokia (eg. the Nokia 3310) phones. You know, the ones with the buttons. I also remember, we mainly used them to write lots of SMS’ to friends. They were not really capable of doing more. Except some of them also played MP3 files. Well, do not forget Snake — I loved this game. Many of us owned pre-paid cards, so the amount of SMS’ we sent each other or the number of minutes we could talk was limited. I still recollect, there existed one package from a provider which offered free calls after 10 pm. Most of the calls happened after 10 pm then. Good old times, ha? Though we had not the luxury to exchange high-res images in seconds. Communication via phone was limited to voice and text. When we met, we talked face to face.
Then the visionary Steve Jobs changed how we communicate and engage with each other, positively and negatively. Back in 2009 when I bought my first iPhone I was fascinated immediately. Not only by the technology of the Apple iPhone 3G, but also by all the colours, interactions, feedback loops and apps I could interact with or responded to me. Fascination sooner or later became addiction. “I simply want to check if I missed a post from a friend on Facebook.” or “I am only reading the news for some minutes.” were common excuses for the daily increasing number of pickups of the device. New apps appeared on a daily basis and thanks to AppAdvice and other publishers I started to install lots of apps just to try them out. AppsGoneFree and AppShopper are especially useful to me. They saved me lots of money so far.
It was bound to happen, I got addicted.
Let’s start the experiment today
That is why nowadays, when you ask my girlfriend to describe me, she would think for a minute and mention ideas such as the following. “He loves his work, he is ambitious and focused but when we sit together he often grabs his phone and purposelessly stares into it. He is addicted, and I guess many of us are.” Does this sound familiar to you? This article is some sort of self-reflection and I think you know what I am talking about.
As soon as I read the article, I decided to follow Dr. Hamblin’s self-experiment and turn my screen gray. Obviously the first challenge was to find out how to modify this setting on the iPhone. Here’s how:
Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Colour Filters > and select “Grayscale”.
The process on Android is a bit more complicated. GeekKraft HD explains how at Android Central:
Go to “about device,” find “build number,” and tap it a bunch of times until the phone tells you you are a developer. Then, go back to settings, and above about device, you will see a new option called “developer options.” Open it, and find “Simulate colour space,” and set it to “Monochrome.”
Now you experience no colours on your phone anymore. Feels strange right? Open Instagram — everything is gray. Open Facebook, Feedly, Reddit — everything looks the same, just gray.
The first few hours I experienced the temptation to turn all the activating and attention-seeking colours of Instagram pictures and others on again. I remained strong, but it was challenging. The next few days some friends and co-workers noticed the change. They began to ask me why I did it. “To me it is an inspiring challenge for the last month of the year 2016”, I told them. Not all of them understood it or cared what the benefit of the experiment possibly is: less time staring at the screen.
How I measured my progress
To measure the smartphone usage I installed the tracking app Moment. It tracks the number of pickups, the time I use the phone and also which apps I used most. The latter feature appears to work in the english version of the app only, at least it does not in the german one.
Previously I used my beloved iPhone (My girlfriend calls it this) approximately 1.75 to 2.5 hours per day. It depends heavily on the day of the week I figured out. From Monday to Friday the data suggests I am focused on my work so the usage of the phone decreases. This statement is probably biased because I have a MacBook Pro (iMessages) and use Franz (WhatsApp), Messenger (Facebook) and Tweeten (Twitter) during the day.
Circa 10–15 minutes were removed from some records. I prefer Flickr and Google Photos to backup my Photos and it takes some time with my internet upload speed. During the upload I leave my iPhone open (not locked). This increases the minutes in Moment too. Anyway, on some days 2.5 hours were left still.
How I experienced it to go gray
It was difficult to keep pushing myself to remain resistant. Especially when you record videos and take pictures a lot. They are simply gray, but they are not gray to others too. Everything I recorded during the experiment has all its colours, once I turned off the settings again. You do not have to worry about that.
It is still strange to browse through my Instagram feed without colours. I am now also “overwhelmed” when someone shows me pictures or their phone and everything is so colourful. It was especially difficult to stay strong when I shared pictures with friends. Because you not really know if the colours are good or if you need to add some effects to it with Snapseed for instance.
Maybe you ask yourself if the battery lasts longer when everything is gray. To be honest, I did not really measure it. As I mentioned in my previous article, I turned off the battery percentage feature in the past already.
Did it change anything?
Let us look at the data after one week of gray. From Monday to Sunday the range was between 1.75 – 2.25 hours. Looking at the numbers, I was even more challenged to keep going. In week two the numbers shifted to 1.5– 2.5 hours, followed by 1.25 – 2.25 in week three and four.
Looking at the result I assume that I still have days with a higher smartphone consumption (most of the time because of Reddit) and at the same time I was able to decrease the overall time-using-the-phone. According to Moment I pickup my iPhone 60–70 times a day, which is great compared to the studies mentioned previously.
Nevertheless this is a subjective analysis based on tracking data from a smartphone app. So it (might be) is biased and not applicable for everybody.
Nevertheless the data indicate changes in my smartphone usage behaviour.
Why it matters — at least to me
You might ask yourself at least now: who cares or why does the idea of Dr. Hamblin matter. Let me illustrate an example.
I recently traveled to Thailand. When I arrived, I realised that the local stores and hotels increased the number of free Wifi-spots dramatically. You enjoy the sun at the beach, listen to Spotify, drink a Sex on the Beach and talk with friends via Skype easily. All with an average internet speed of 75 MB.
What puzzled me was the behaviour I observed around me. People from England, Germany, USA, Spain and other countries traveled hours to be on the beautiful island of Koh Samui just to scroll down their endless Facebook stream or watch Netflix movies on the beach.
I would not be honest, if I had said I did not go online as well. The missing activating colours (eg. red) may influenced my temptation to use it (Note: very subjective conclusion) though. I enjoyed the time starring on the sea probably more often as others around me. Still I was also using the phone too much though.
To sum it up, I am not sure if the missing colours are the reason for my resume of the experiment or if it was my will to accomplish the challenge. I will see if I go back to the colourful smartphone wonderland or if I stay here on the gray side.