My Smartphone: With Me or Against Me?

Before the boom of the internet, in Quito-Ecuador (1991), you could certainly find me at my university’s library! At that time – and still today – Quito wasn’t  known as a city with plenty of bookstores and libraries as other cities here in the U.S.  Books were a commodity for the privileged and were only abundant in schools and home libraries of the upper class. Most of us had access to newspapers and the news broadcasted by the local channels.  So when I was finally a college student, I couldn’t get enough of all the books available to me. I spent hours and hours browsing and reading, and I loved to check out books to continue reading at home. Nowadays, the information is available to anyone. Even though I miss the experience of visiting libraries, I no longer have the need to visit them in order to get information.  With a simple click on my phone, I can Google the precise piece of information that I was looking for. Online, I can read magazines, books, and blog posts, as well as access major news channels and newspapers around the planet. However, something more extraordinary has happened. With the invention of smartphones, the internet, and social media, anyone can report their reality. Being able to crowdsource information about the same event or problem has empowered the common individual. I strongly believe that technology can be an equalizer of society and give a voice to those who may have remained silent in the past.

A great example of how technology can generate positive change can be seen in Quito’s new campaign, “Down with harassment” (#BajaleAlAcoso), which started in March. Two years ago the United Nations Women and the Municipality of the Metropolitan District of Quito found distressing statistics:

 …81 percent of women felt they had been harassed or victimized on Ecuador’s public transportation system and 91 percent saying they had experienced sexual harassment in public in general.

As a result, a digital platform was created so passengers could report the sexual harassment with an SMS, which unfolds a series of actions that will protect the victim.  In less than a minute, the bus driver would be informed and the victim would have received a phone call with instructions on how to proceed.  Six months after the launching of the new digital platform there had been 560 reports, 24 trials and four prison sentences for offenders.


Going back to the countless hours I used to spend reading at the library prior to the internet and how my phone has now replaced that need, I am becoming more conscious of the endless hours spent looking at a screen. Of course, I can clearly differentiate when I am using my phone productively and when I am just procrastinating with the never-ending scrolling of the new posts on social media. I know this is a behavior most of us can recognize, but I wasn’t aware the apps are designed deliberately to kidnap our attention.  In the article, How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind – from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris describes how product designers use psychological techniques to have us engage with their app, stay longer and return often.  For example, social media platforms want users to stay on their sites as long as possible. This is clear when you see that it isn’t possible for you to look at an event on Facebook without having to see the news feed or posting something on Twitter skipping the news feed. This is done on purpose! Tristan Harris, along with other members of the non-profit organization Time Well Spent, advocates for a future where technology is aligned with our social values, health, and democracy.

We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.

Moreover, Tristan Harris also held a session for the Wisdom 2.0 conference called Can Technology Support Mindfulness?  


Here, he provides advice on how to minimize distractions from your phone:

  1. Turning off notifications or allowing only notifications from people, not machines.
  2. Charging devices outside of the bedroom when sleeping.
  3. Putting apps that serve as tools (calendar, camera, notes etc.) on your first page of your phone, make the rest of the apps hard to get.
  4. Using the search option to type the app to avoid distractions.

To conclude, the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives makes it imperative to understand that its use could be transformational, but it can also keep us trapped. Above all, we need to continue developing critical thinking to know where to find the perfect balance.

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5 Responses

  1. Hola Carolin,

    I didn’t know you were from Ecuador. I lived in South America for four years, and I really miss it. I spent one summer traveling Ecuador – so beautiful. Anyway, back to the topic.

    I really like this week’s topic, because I think the idea that we can bond together globally and change the world one hashtag at a time really impresses me and motivates me. I like the story you shared about the #BajaleAlAcoso movement. I believe that the different social media platforms allow people to connect with each other and join campaigns quicker than ever before. Plus, we can join campaigns and movements globally. I think this is really amazing because since we can involve more people quicker, we have a better chance to solve our problems or create change.

    I think the emergency platform that you described is very helpful and it is the beginning of change. I understand that there are many people in Ecuador who don’t have the luxury of driving their own cars, they must rely on public transportation. So emergency Apps like the one you described can be so helpful and can help people feel safe, which in turn helps to create a healthier society.

    I also like the video that you shared. In the past, I used to waste a lot of my time on my phone or computer just “surfing the internet” or scrolling through articles or videos that really don’t improve my life in any way. I think I’m actually so busy now, I don’t have a moment to waste, but also, about a year ago I had to make a conscious effort to not waste time and to try to focus more time on Twitter (which I more or less built as a more professional platform for myself).

    I think that this video would be great to show at a parent workshop at my school. The past couple of days I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to facilitate more parent workshops so we can talk about parents’ role of monitoring their children’s’ digital life at home, but I believe that so many of my students’ parents need to also model this sort of mindset of managing their own digital life, as well.

    Thanks for the resource!

    Have a great week!

  2. Hola Gene,
    I was so surprised to read that you spent a summer in Ecuador. The country has so much potential in terms of tourism that we are just beginning to understand it. In one day you could experience a variety of ecosystems and weather changes. What I miss the most from Quito are the mountains. Here, in Houston, there aren’t any.

    I agree with you about parents not being great models when managing technology. In my school, we have started a series of workshops for parents in the use of technology and how to best guide their children. The problem was that only a few parents attended the workshops.

    Que tengas una gran semana,

    Carolin E.

  3. Yasmeen says:

    Hi Carolin,

    I just wrote in my last post about my favourite new app called Calm! I am really looking forward to watching the video you just shared. Like you, I am trying to be more mindful of how I use technology. I can’t quite get to the stage of not having my phone in my bedroom, as I must admit I use it as an alarm, and checking social media first thing in the morning actually serves as a way to make sure I am not pressing the snooze button!

    The Tristan Harris article is particularly interesting, the 10 hijacks that he outlines are eye opening. It really spells out how we are all being manipulated by social media, and though we may think things pop up on our feeds by chance we are so wrong. It is most definitely by design! More and more lately, I am finding Facebook to be so boring, and I find myself catching myself mindlessly scrolling through silly videos and not much else, then being angry with myself for falling into the vortex. It may be because I have also become more mindful of my time, which is a limited resource I have, so I particularly like when Harris says “we should protect our time with the same rigour as privacy and other digital rights”.

    Thank you for this post!

  4. Thank you Yasmeen for your comment. As an educator, I think is important to teach students how to identify the ulterior motifs of some of the technology we consume.

  5. Jane Hernandez says:

    Hello there ,
    I saw that you mentioned here and I wanted to share my gratitude concerning your work on the promotion of women.

    I want to suggest you also share an important guide on women’s safety online which came out recently. It was written by women for women and empowers women to protect themselves online.
    I liked the way they gave a few tips for each situation and actionable items.
    Thanks for helping protect women online,

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