Experts Say This Small Change Can Drastically Reduce Your Screen Time—So I Tested It Out

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Slot machines, road signs, warning labels, Shrek 2: What do they all have in common? They use color to provoke human interaction. Whether encouraging people to gamble, adhere to traffic rules, signify danger, or captivate viewers with cinematic beauty—designers often use color to hold our attention. Intentions vary, but it's understood that human behavior is influenced by colors. This is precisely what inspired me to make my iPhone black and white—I wanted to see if going greyscale would reduce my screen time.

I decided to give it a go because, like most of my peers, I am not thrilled by the amount of time I spend on my phone.  My idea isn’t without credence. Jay Olson, PhD, psychology and behavior researcher at McGill University, recently published a study on strategies that reduce phone addiction or what the field has coined, "problematic smartphone usage." One of the techniques that Dr. Olson used? Setting your phone to grayscale, (as well as turning off notifications, silencing alerts, and seven other strategies).

Experts In This Article
  • Jay Olson, PhD, behavioral scientist and postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at the University of Toronto

If you’re interested in doing this, you're likely to find this option in your phone's accessibility section. It’s worth noting that this option is intended to support people with color-related vision impairments, but in my case, I was hoping it could help reduce my screen time.

At first, it made me grumpy, then it lowered my screen time

I decided to change my phone on a Sunday so that I could try it for a full week. I was in a funk that first day (potentially for other reasons), and staring at my phone in grayscale didn't really boost my mood. It was a little bit weird, and after a while, I realized that I should put my phone down and do something else because everyone’s life seems a little less amazing on Instagram and when everything is gray.

Part of what we know to be true about phones and human behavior, according to Dr. Olson, is that people like to look at nice colors. Pretty things are pleasing to the human eye, and each app tries really hard to have a unique, engaging design that makes you want to look at it, he adds. So it would make sense that I didn't feel my typical satisfaction from scrolling, so much so that I would let out an "ugh" when I picked up my phone and realized everything was gray.

Boredom led me to do other things 

Early in the week, I didn't feel the impulse to cheat, but I did find that my intent to reduce my screen time was working. I have a demanding job that takes a lot of my focus, and my phone helps me decompress. Much like someone might reach for a cup of coffee to relax, I browse TikTok, text my friends, or pull up a food delivery app and order some lunch.

With my phone in grayscale, I wasn't really getting that relaxation that I usually do. I'd pull up my phone, remember that it was in grayscale, and just toss it back onto my bed or couch (WFH life). Sometimes I'd just return to work or whatever I was doing, or I'd take a break by making coffee, petting my roommate's cat, or looking out the window and just staring at a cool (potentially colorful) bird.

Researchers hypothesize that some phone behaviors are automatic. The bright red text notification circle can make your thumb hit your messaging app before you think about it, Dr. Olson says. So taking away that colorful mechanism can potentially deter a behavior like checking your messages, he adds.

Boredom eventually led me to drift towards things that felt more rewarding than my gray phone or as rewarding as my previously colorful phone. I used my phone less, but screen time didn't necessarily go down: I gravitated toward my iPad, Nintendo Switch, watching TV (or just using the phone despite the grayscale setting).

I saved money 

The major thing I noticed was that I actually saved money by turning my phone to grayscale. I wasn't browsing any clothing stores or picking up random things for my house. Food delivery apps didn't really have much appeal.

If color schemes are pleasing and rewarding for people, as Dr. Olson explained, apps that want you to spend money are designed to guide your attention and desire through color, too. Grayscale definitely interrupted my inclination to buy.

I had to cheat a few times

One of the most important findings in Dr. Olson's recent study was that, while grayscale did have an impact on people's screen time, it was the thing that people were least likely to stick with over time. I found this to be true for me, too, since I manage a lot of aspects of daily life on my phone.

I found that I had to turn it off if a friend sent me a photo or if I was placing a grocery order. I definitely had different behaviors with my phone, but it was not something that I could maintain. Overall this was a really interesting experiment to try, and it definitely taught me about my brain's desire for stimulus. If anything, I feel more empowered to stare out the window at cool birds more often instead of checking my phone.


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