Adam Alter: How Do We Take Back Control Of Our Attention? Within the last decade, we've opted to replace time spent on hobbies, exercise, and conversation with screen time. Social psychologist Adam Alter describes ways we can reclaim our attention.

Adam Alter: How Do We Take Back Control Of Our Attention?

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So as difficult as it is to create rules for the web and tame it, we do need it, and, actually, we love it. I mean, the Internet connects us. It educates us, entertains us, saves us time. And even if most of us don't spend our waking hours worried about what happens to our data or how companies compete in the global market, a lot of us are thinking about our personal digital habits, starting with our screen time.


ZOMORODI: As a psychologist, what do you tell people who say, man, I just - I can't - I - you know, I love being on Instagram, I want to see what everybody's doing. And, oh, my gosh, the news, there's just so much going on. I can't stop looking at the alerts. What do you tell people?

ADAM ALTER: I mean, I think the first question to ask people is how many hours of the day or minutes of the day do you spend where you can reach your phone without moving your feet?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter). That's a good question.

ALTER: Yeah. And when you ask people this, about 75 to 80% of adults say 24 hours a day.

ZOMORODI: Oh, that's a lot.


ZOMORODI: This is Adam Alter. He's a professor of marketing and psychology at NYU's Stern School of Business.

ALTER: And I'm the author of "Irresistible." And "Irresistible" is about how we can't seem to tear ourselves away from our screens.

ZOMORODI: By now, we've all heard about how our relationships with our phones can be described as, well, for lack of a better word, codependent.

ALTER: I'm lying in my bed. I can reach over to my nightstand. I'm awake. It's on the desk next to me. It's in my pocket.

Because it's functionally there all the time, it may as well be a part of our bodies.


ZOMORODI: Adam has spent most of the last decade tracking how we're spending more and more time on our screens.

ALTER: Now, before the introduction of the iPhone, it was a couple of hours, and that was usually just in front of a TV. We only spent about 18 minutes looking at our phones. Once that device was introduced a few years later, 10 years later actually in 2017, we were spending about three or four hours a day looking at those screens; sometimes for kids, five or six hours a day. Personal time, exercising, hobbies, conversations with friends and loved ones used to be a couple of hours a day. It was now about half an hour or even slightly less than half an hour a day. And that had changed in just a decade.


ZOMORODI: And Adam says it's not like all those hours are spent learning a new language or meditating. Big surprise - most of that time is spent on games and social media.

ALTER: We spend three times more on average on those apps that I think are a little bit hollow and not especially good for well-being.

ZOMORODI: Adam Alter picks up the story from the TED stage.


ALTER: Now, what's interesting about these apps - dating, social networking, gaming, entertainment, news, web browsing - about half the people, when you interrupt them and say, how do you feel, say they don't feel good about using them. We're spending three times longer on the apps that don't make us happy. That doesn't seem very wise. Now, one of the reasons we spend so much time on these apps that make us unhappy is they rob us of stopping cues. Stopping cues were everywhere in the 20th century. They were baked into everything we did.


ALTER: Think about newspapers. Eventually, you get to the end, you fold the newspaper away, you put it aside; the same with magazines. But the way we consume media today is such that there are no stopping cues. The news feed just rolls on, and everything's bottomless - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, text messaging, the news. And when you do check all sorts of other sources, you can just keep going, on and on and on, on and on and on, on and on and on, on and on and on.

ZOMORODI: OK. But it's not exactly that simple. There are plenty of voices in Silicon Valley who would say, hey, you have free will. Be disciplined.

ALTER: In practice today, absolutely. That's true. But it's also really that it's not a fair fight because, to be completely frank with you, I don't think they are great products. I just think they are hard to stop using.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

ALTER: The people who are putting together these platforms, either they are very sophisticated psychologists or they hire very sophisticated psychologists or they don't even need psychologists because they have access to so many data points that all they need to do is try 10 different things, throw them all at the wall, see which one sticks the best with the audience and we as consumers have no insight into that. We don't know that that's going on. And because it's happening constantly, all of these platforms are evolving to be kind of weaponized to engage us. And we just don't have the resources to combat that as individuals.


ZOMORODI: So when you think about screen time, maybe this is a fantasy, but let's think of Goldilocks, right? She's got the one plate that's too much, the other plate that's too little but then the one that's just right. Is there a just right when it comes to our smartphones, to our time on these digital platforms?

ALTER: Yeah. So the first thing I tell people is try to spend the same period every day - maybe make it dinner time to begin because that's easy. We have dinner every day. Make it dinner time and maybe the half hour before and after and say for that period of time every day, I'm going to take my phone and put it in a drawer in a room that's far away or in my bag and put my bag far away so that it's not within physical reach during dinner time. And you're thoughtful about not spending a huge amount of time just scrolling through app after app after app but actually doing something that's engaging, that's enriching, that's good for you, that brings you closer to other people in a meaningful way. I think that's the Goldilocks moment is when you hit the right number, but you're also doing the right things with that time.


ALTER: And what's interesting is people first struggle with that. They find it difficult. They have FOMO. They feel that they're missing out on whatever else they might be doing on their phones. But very quickly, they start to tolerate that experience to being far away from their phones. And often, whether they're alone, whether they're with friends, with family members, no matter what it is, they find that that period of the day as a sort of oasis. It's time away. And they find it very enriching.

ZOMORODI: So I'm going to make an admission here, which is that there have been moments - my kids are older now, but there were moments when somebody was having a tantrum - not me. And I have indeed handed over my phone to subdue a child. I don't feel proud about it. But, you know, at the end of the day, you just have to get through certain situations.

ALTER: Absolutely agree.

ZOMORODI: So I guess I'm just wondering, do we just have to accept that this is a reality, that screens are with us in our lives and as long as maybe we think carefully, do I need to look at this right now versus, like, I'm just going to do it because I'm kind of feeling lazy or - is that the question that we have to ask ourselves?

ALTER: I think the right question is what's the alternative here? What are we missing out on if we're using screens? I think that's a good question because, in the moment, using screens for half an hour on a particular day, it's not going to change the way your brain functions. It's not going to destroy, you know, your attention span, things like that. So it's 2 p.m. on a random Saturday afternoon. Your kids could be playing outside because it's a beautiful day. I think that's a better alternative than using a screen in that moment. In the checkout line, on a plane, there aren't many better alternatives. I think it's probably in general, if those are exceptions, OK to use your screen in those moments. And I think we should give ourselves a bit of a break because, after all, we are human.


ALTER: So what's the take-home here? You know, screens are miraculous. I've already said that, and I feel that it's true. But the way we use them is a lot like driving down a really fast, long road and you're in a car where the accelerator is mashed to the floor. It's kind of hard to reach the brake pedal. And you've got a choice. You can either glide by past, say, the beautiful ocean scenes and take snaps out the window, and that's the easy thing to do. Or you can go out of your way to move the car to the side of the road, to push that brake pedal, to get out, take off your shoes and socks, take a couple of steps onto the sand, feel what the sand feels like under your feet, walk to the ocean and let the ocean lap at your ankles.


ALTER: Your life will be richer and more meaningful because you breathe in that experience and because you've left your phone in the car. Thank you.


ZOMORODI: Adam Alter is a professor of marketing and psychology at NYU's Stern School of Business. You can find his full talk at


ZOMORODI: Thanks so much for listening to our show this week. I hope you think about it the next time you go online. And if you'd like to find out more about who was on the episode, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Kiara Brown and Hanna Bolanos, with help from Brent Baughman and Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Matthew Cloutier, and our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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