A presentation by Katharine Brandes of Riveted Labs.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Speaker: Katharine Brandes, Riveted Labs
(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)
Brandes: Hi, I’m Katherine Brandes, and I’m here to talk about society’s smartphone addiction and what my company, Riveted Labs, is doing about it. I hope you can agree with me when I say that smartphone addiction poses a serious existential threat to our mental health and safety and may be one of the greatest social issues of our time. In the next few minutes, I want to convince you of a couple of things. One, smartphone addiction is not a problem that any one person can solve on his or her own, it’s a social problem and a cultural one and for that reason it’s best addressed at the group level like an institution such as work and school. And my second point, giving institutions the tools to address smartphone and distraction and addiction may be the best way to solve it.
Okay, to begin, why is smartphone addiction an institutional problem? Because being on your iPhone takes a village. Even if you turn yours off, the social media rat race and 24-hour news cycle continues without you. A shiny new set of tools has appeared to help individuals address smartphone addiction and yet they don’t seem to work for most. Why is that? Because using the screen time app isn’t helpful when your boss is constantly texting you questions. And grey scaling your phone for the high schooler whose friend is snapping her constantly in the next class over, won’t be effective.
We think the missing link here is institutions like workplace and school. Institutions create social norms that drive our most basic human behaviors around how we use our phone. When is it okay to check your phone? How long can you take to respond to messages? And what information is inappropriate to share? Maybe if we gave institutions the tools to create better social norms around smartphone addiction, we could begin to tackle the problem. I want to give you an example from an institution we’re all pretty familiar with, high schools. I was talking to a principle of 30 years a couple of weeks ago and he told me that two decades ago a fight would break out in his school yard and maybe six kids would show up to watch, now powered by Snapchat, hundreds of children show up to watch. And to add insult to injury, they live stream the whole things. Then the parents catch wind of the live stream, now he has 40 irate voicemails from parents asking him what exactly he’s going to do about it. Do you think any one civically-minded child’s decision to abstain from smartphone use could stop an incident like this from happening? We weren’t betting on it.
So my team at Riveted Labs thought what if we gave schools the ability to measure the amount of time kids are using their phones during the school day? Better yet, what if we gave them the tools to design incentives around healthier smartphone use, like pizza parties for keeping your phone use down during the week or using the data to inform parent/teacher conferences. Or in very extreme cases, blocking the phones all together. So we built our first product called ClassMode and we launched it this fall in a broad spectrum of forward-thinking schools around the country.
I want to show you data from two different schools. The first school is a larger public school in Washington D.C. called Eastern Senior High. Initially we wanted to just establish a baseline of usage, like how much the kids are using their phones without intervention during the school day. The average student is using his phone an hour of class time every school day. And this is the average student, there was a nontrivial amount of students who were just watching Hulu on their phones the entire school day. So we gave the school the ability to give students a budget of 20 minutes to use their phone during the school day, after which their phones would be blocked. Meaning, their smartphone becomes a dumb phone, no apps, only voice calls. As you can see by simply blocking the phones, we were able to reduce usage by, on average, to under 20 minutes a day. Of course, this was met with great resistance by the students and a Messiah-like adulation from parents and teachers.
The second school, Orange County School of the Arts, this is a top-100 public school in the nation, we gave this school—or we made our product optional at this school, using the data to inform parent/teacher conferences and rewarding healthier smartphone behaviors with pizza and ice cream parties. As you can see, we achieved similar results just by raising awareness about usage and rewarding healthier behaviors.
About a month into our pilot, we talked to the kids just to see how it was going and one of the big things we kept hearing was because all the kids were on the same system and abiding by the same smartphone rules, they felt less anxiety about checking their phones. Because if no one is able to use their phones, no one is making a social media content that you’ll feel fulfillment about. Biologists call this herd immunity.
Now, let’s get back to the main theme, distraction. We see carnage, carnage whenever we mix smartphones with performance environments. I was talking to a safety engineer a couple of months back and he told me that just that week, a person on one of his worksites was hit by a garbage truck because he was looking at his phone when the garbage truck backed up. The worker barely survived. The stats show that an employee is 400% more likely to get into an accident for the next four seconds after he’s distracted. And the number one cause of distraction on worksites are smartphones, contributing to billions of dollars in workers compensation payouts a year. And yet no one worker on that worksite can make it a safer, more distraction-free environment.
To answer the question from the beginning another way, smartphone addiction is an institutional problem because the institution owns the consequences of inappropriate use, whether it’s lower grades or an unsafe work environment. The analogy I like to use is a hospital with an infection problem. You wouldn’t expect to solve an infection problem by asking one doctor to wash her hands. You need a comprehensive infection prevention system. There are huge companies like Ecolab that have emerged to help health care settings with infection prevention. Similarly, companies like mine can help institutions with the seemingly intractable problem of smartphone addiction by creating comprehensive solutions.
As I said at the beginning, smartphone addiction is not a problem that any one person can solve in his or her own. It will take concerted changes to institutional norms. You wouldn’t go to that hospital where they asked one doctor to wash her hands, but your child goes to that school and many of us are working at that job and, by the way, your doctor is anxious to get out of her appointment with you because she probably wants to look at some tweets. A lot of people are talking about this problem but there’s been a notable absence of successful solutions. Why? Because we’re not thinking about this as an institutional problem. That’s what Riveted Labs is doing.
Again, thank you for your time. My name is Katharine and my company is Riveted Labs.