Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit? | Oliver Burkeman | Life and style

Hot on the heels of “smart email”, grumbled about in this column recently, comes “digital wellness”, the umbrella term for trying to fix our addiction to technology – and its grim effects on our health, productivity and politics – by means of that technology itself. One hugely popular app, Forest, displays a tree on your phone when you put it down, which then gradually begins to grow, only to die if you pick it back up. Android phones have Wind Down, which causes the screen to fade slowly to black and white as bedtime approaches; then, last month, Apple announced features designed to help you monitor, and limit, the time you spend staring open-mouthed into its range of glass rectangles. Using fire to fight fire in this fashion is an appealing thought. And given the endless data these firms collect about how we use their products, nobody could be better placed to help us use them more healthily, if they chose to.

And yet, increasingly, digital wellness triggers in me a response reminiscent of those screaming authoritarians you encounter in bad American reality TV shows, about wayward teenagers sent to the Colorado wilderness to learn self-discipline through self-love. If you hate how much you use your phone, just stop using your phone so much! Relying on Big Tech to help you do so is a problem, for one thing, because of the obvious conflict of interest. (However concerned for your wellbeing they might seem, Apple and Google need you to need their products.) But it’s also infantilising, as the author Cal Newport explained on his blog. “I’m a grown man,” he wrote. “If I’m checking my phone every five minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits. I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say, ‘Get your act together.’ ”

To put it differently: digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. It closes off the idea of a more radical rejection of consumer technology, which may be the answer for some people. More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.

It’s a little like relying on technological progress to solve the problem of climate change, which results in part from technological progress. That might work – I hope it does – but it undeniably also serves as a comforting way to avoid having to contemplate the possibility that a far bigger shift in your way of life might be required.

Deep down, Newport argues, people don’t want their devices to be “slightly less intrusive… They want instead to be so wrapped up in doing things that are hard and important and meaningful that they forgot where they left their phone in the first place.” Perhaps the way forward here isn’t merely to take the edge off our iPhone addictions, but rather, wherever possible, to choose lives sufficiently compelling that our iPhones simply can’t compete.

Listen to this

The writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield discusses how the smartphone colonised our lives faster than any technology in human history in episode 29 of Jocelyn Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast.

oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com

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