This article originally appeared on Tonic in the US.
Switching your phone screen to grayscale mode makes using it terrible and not fun. You will hate it, and that’s the whole point.
A 2016 Deloitte survey suggests Americans check their phones 47 times a day on average (a collective nine billion times a day). We tried focustrack.in, a usage tracker app, to check our own habits. As it turns out, spending three and a half hours per day on this little rectangle of anxiety is not difficult for many of us. Half of that time is spent mindlessly scrolling Twitter and Instagram and vacillating between getting pissed off at the news and then self-soothing with cat videos.
There’s a movement, though, aimed at making our phones easier to put down. Even technology companies like Apple are announcing new features meant to scale back screen time. And as mental health professionals continue to tout the benefits of this kind of unplugging, even simpler techniques like changing the colors you see on your screen could improve our relationship with technology.
Rehman Ata, a graduate student at Ryerson University in Toronto, launched the website Go Gray last year to raise awareness around a simple trick that app developers would hate: Turning your screen black and white. He says that “grayscaling” could drain our virtual world of over-stimulating distractions, allowing us to “see the colors in the world again.”
After deciding he needed to cut back on his phone usage, Ata found inspiration in the work of former design ethicist (i.e. the person who looks at how to peddle ethical tech products) at Google, Tristan Harris, who has compared addictive apps to slot machines, and advocated for using grayscale to break the addiction, as well as Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.
Ata tried Harris’s grayscale method six months ago, and went from using his phone for an average of six hours a day to two hours, at most. “It was so night and day,” Ata says. “I turned it on, and I was like, whoa, I don’t want to look at this thing anymore at all.” On Reddit, other users report similar results.
It sounds too simple to work, but we found that that grayscaling makes your phone too boring to get spaced-out on for more than a few minutes at a time. Everything is a little more clumsy, like there’s a lag between brain and thumb. You can’t unthinkingly reach for the bright yellow Snapchat icon anymore, and scrolling Instagram in black-and-white is like looking at a hundred shabby attempts at being artsy. Twitter and Facebook notifications aren’t bright red laid over blue app icons, but flat, uncritical shades of gray.
Methods like these are becoming increasingly crucial to our wellbeing as researchers uncover the negative impacts of cellphone usage on mental health. In one University of Illinois study, psychologists found that mobile technology was linked to depression and anxiety in college students. In a review of cell phone addiction, University of Madrid researchers found that people experienced sleep disturbances, loneliness, and loss of interest in real-life activities.
This can be especially harmful for young people, says Nicholas Carson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and researcher at Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston. He adds that curbing it isn’t easy—in fact, he sees patients get violent when someone tries to take away their cell phone access, even physically fighting their own parents. “More and more, things that happen online are bringing people into the emergency room,” Carson says.
Grayscaling, then, can seem like too weak an antidote to cell phone addiction. But some of the most addictive apps and games on our phones can become unappetizing in black and white. Games like Candy Crush use color to subconsciously make us crave the next round, says Gal Shvebish, a mobile marketer noted in The Next Web, Entire companies exist solely to help app developers make their products more addictive, including with the use of color.
If you want to suck the delight out of a device you likely have an unhealthy relationship with, here’s how to grayscale: On iOS 11, grayscale is found under Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters. Switch Color Filters on, and choose Grayscale. On Android, it’s Settings > Accessibility > Grayscale. Or you can try one of the apps like Greyscale or SPACE, created to dim or change the color of your screen in customized shades,
You might find, like we did, that the colors of the real world suddenly seem a little bit brighter.