7. Illusions of success

We often believe that our phones are helping us achieve our goals. But is this an illusion?

As we become accustomed to easier ways to use our phones, the skills to use alternatives can waste away. In the same way, if we don’t generally consider whether our phone is the best tool for the job at hand, we might forget what that job well done actually looks like.

The participants in our research were often under the illusion that they were achieving their goals by using their phones, but our observation of what they were doing and the screen recordings of how they were using their phones suggested otherwise.

Broadly speaking, these illusions fall into one of four categories: the illusion of connection, the illusion of exploration, the illusion of creativity, and the illusion of productivity. We tell their stories below.

Illusion of connection

Seventeen-year-old Olympia said she did not have enough time to see her friends face to face because she was in the middle of revising for her A-level exams.

She felt satisfied she was keeping up to date with them via WhatsApp and Snapchat.

However, the time she was spending on social media or communicating with her friends on her phone, as seen in her app usage (below), meant that she struggled to find the time for exam revision.

Over the course of six days, she spent more than 10 hours on social media or chatting online.

She was neither seeing her friends face to face nor successfully revising.

Illusion of exploration

Samantha, a 23-year-old who lived with her daughter and was unemployed, said her goal in life was to move to France to teach English, so she had been learning French. She had been using the Duolingo app for the past four years. The app told her she was making progress, rating her as ‘40% fluent’. But her spoken French was very limited, as you might expect without conversational practice.

It is hard to focus on learning, a task which typically requires effort and usually has delayed returns, in the smartphone landscape of apps and notifications that demand your attention and favour immediate reward. Indeed, Samantha’s app usage revealed she was spending little time on Duolingo compared with other apps – less than 11 minutes a week.

Because it’s so easy to get distracted while we’re using our phones, it’s more difficult to sustain focus on genuine exploration. If we really wanted to eat more healthily, we wouldn’t store biscuits in the same place as healthy snacks because we’d find the temptation harder to resist. But on our phones the content is all together in one giant digital cookie jar, and the ‘biscuits’ are constantly flashing up notifications about how delicious they are.

Illusion of creativity

Lots of people talk about the ways in which their smartphone enables them to create things or share their creativity with the world – from photography to ideas to make-up tutorials.

Joanne, for example, used her phone to edit beauty vlogs she had made. However, she had not uploaded any to YouTube, as she had been struggling to edit them to a standard she was happy with.

Joanne has a laptop, which might have been a better tool for the job of video editing, but she chose to use her phone as it was easier to learn to use a video editing app than master computer software. In this case, Joanne’s creativity was being limited by the tools she had chosen to use.

Illusion of productivity

Simon, 23, used his phone for everything related to his work as a film extra: finding work, responding to job offers, even sorting out his tax. He said his phone made his life easier and saved time.

Using his phone meant he could respond instantly to job alerts or offers. But for his tax calculations, which took time and which he did at home anyway, Simon probably would have found his computer more effective.

David, 21, a student at the Royal College of Music, volunteered with dementia patients once a week. He and his fellow volunteers sourced lyrics from the patients and then wrote the music for a song for them to sing together. They swapped ideas for the songs using Facebook Messenger, which was a useful way to share ideas, especially as one of the musicians lived a long way away. But it was a while before David realised that moving between a photo of lyrics shared via Messenger, and his Notes app, where he was transcribing them, took a lot longer than if he’d used pen and paper. It also made it difficult to write the lyrics alongside the music itself.

People often insist they can do almost anything and everything on their phones. Because it’s possible to do so many things on our phones, we often believe the smartphone is an enabler, a tool that increases our productivity and helps us get things done.

But just because we can do something using our phone, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the quickest or most effective way to do so.  

When we asked the participants in our research consciously to reflect on their smartphone use – particularly if they watched back their own screen recording – they were sometimes visibly uncomfortable. To their surprise, what they had told us about their smartphone use and what they had really done were often quite different.

The people we interviewed had often underestimated the time they spent passively scrolling through feeds on apps such as Instagram and Facebook, and overestimated the time spent doing active activities such as talking to friends or taking photos.

When we asked them to talk us through what was on their newsfeeds, prompting them to actively consider it rather than passively skim through it, they would often seem embarrassed. “It’s normally a lot more interesting than this,” was a common justification. But screen recordings revealed what we were looking at was not significantly different any other time.