The art and science of distraction

The numbers tell the story. We touch our phones more than 2,600 times a day on average. The heaviest users, in the top 10 percent, touch twice as often, for a total of more than two million swipes a year.

This dependence is no accident. Technology companies have spent billions on perfecting wondrous designs that grab us and won’t let go.

"It's the impulse to check a message notification. It's the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later," writes Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

Social media draws us in with a never-ending stream of surprises, delivered via the ubiquitous feed of updates from our dearest friends and most admired heroes. Video providers pull us down rabbit holes of home movies and captivate us with cliffhangers, all resulting in us spending hours staring at screens. All this time spent on our devices can compel and delight. But it can also take a toll, especially on our eyes.

Psychological Tricks

Technology companies have long employed a range of strategies to keep us coming back. They “personalize” content and persuade us with “social proof” that an article with tens of thousands of views is worth reading. They tease with ephemeral status updates to keep us coming back to discover what’s new.

Most effectively, web platforms hook us with the thrill of the gamble. The coins in video games and “likes” on Facebook are rewarding enough, but their variability is what keeps us coming back for more. The same goes for the little red dots beside apps, alerting us there’s something–something unknown and potentially exciting–waiting just inside. “Swiping down to get new content serves a similar purpose. Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, told the Guardian. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”

Continuous Feeds and Cliffhangers

Just as there are no clocks in casinos, so gamblers lose track of time, technology platforms aim to create a limitless experience for users. The content feeds are endless. So, too, are videos, equipped with auto-play to begin another within seconds. The writers of web series have adjusted script formulas to end each episode at the height of the drama. “We are very, very sensitive to cliffhangers,” Eric Alter, author of the book Irresistible by Design, said in an interview on National Public Radio. “We hate a loop that's been opened that hasn't been closed narratively. So, if I tell you half a story, you will know how frustrating that is. And that's what a lot of these services do.”

Taking a break

While our screens may constantly plea for our attentions, there are simple steps we can take to regain focus. Reducing the brightness levels can be a wonder for the eyes. Shutting off notifications can be a huge help. And some have found success finding alternatives to the screen, such as exercise, reading books the old-fashioned way, or even doing a little tidying.

With some irony, Eyal, who wrote a book on making devices irresistible, says he uses web browser extensions to limit his access to social media. He also employs an app to reward him for staying off his phone. But sometimes, when even those measures fall short, he sets a timer to shut off the internet at his house at a certain hour.

But such drastic measures aren’t always necessary. Something as simple as the eyewear employees wear can serve as a first line of defense with the help of VSP vision benefits.

Just as dimming the screen can help the eyes, TechShield Blue anti-reflective coating by VSP can help reduce blue light exposure from screens—exposure that scientists have linked to digital eye strain. An added bonus: The coating, which appears near-clear, also protects lenses from scratches and smudging and minimizes reflections.

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