Posted in Phone addiction


I had an app a while back called Breakfree. It featured a little buddha, who would look sad if I used my phone too much. Reader, I killed him. He got sadder and sadder until eventually he was just a sobbing heap on the ground, bemoaning my utter incapability to put the thing down.

“You’ve unlocked your phone over 200 times today” he would sob gently to himself. “Shut up Buddha” I would huff angrily, clicking away to check a cycle of twitter, facebook, instagram, strava, facebook messenger and whatsapp notifications for the upteenth time.

But I read recently that it’s not my fault. The social media companies have to get us to look at them all the time in order to sell advertising. We are not the customers when we use our social media apps. Our attention is being flogged to the highest bidder.

They are selling our eyeballs

That’s why they encourage us to have notifications switched on. Like a rat with a treat lever, we click them continually, just to see what has ‘happened’. Sometimes it’s something genuinely exciting, sometimes it’s someone we follow having liked something we don’t care about. Oh, thanks very much for letting me know.

And when it’s something interesting, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness.

We’re carrying dopamine pumps around with us in our pockets

Anytime we are bored, or frustrated, or bored and frustrated, we zombie back online to see what’s going on.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been trying to get 3yo to put her tights on, got bored, slid onto social media, only to find that the roving toddler is raiding the biscuit barrel, and there’s me, blinking, holding some tights and wondering where the last 20 minutes have gone.

Notifications are more addictive when occasionally interesting than consistently interesting

Psychologists call this a variable-ratio schedule. It is the most addictive type of conditioning, and the hardest to extinguish. That’s why it’s used in sales, marketing, and social media user interface design.

The response to a variable-ratio schedule is a consistently high response rate. We don’t know when the reward will come, so we keep scrolling. If we were on a fixed ratio schedule, we’d get bored of it. We know when the reward is coming, so we’re on go slow until it’s time to get the reward, and might give up all together.

All of this was more powerful than any amount of weeping and eye rolling from my fictional buddhist.

Since then, Breakfree has rebranded as Space – Break phone addiction and is using the very same mind games to help me to crack the habit. Every few days of beating my unlock and time allowances, I get a space ship or some other sticker appear on the screen. Importantly, I don’t know when I’m going to get one. I just know that if I do well, my chances of winning are higher. It’s helping. Check out the Space app here



Posted in Inspiration

Joan Didion on self-respect

I’ve just re-read an essay by the American writer Joan Didion on self-respect.

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

This is a bit of a problem. The world is shouting very loudly that we should make ourselves unique, work on our #branding, tell our story and build our reputation. And indeed this seems to make sense. There are a lot of us about.

But if we Gen Xers and Millenials are intent on building our brands and telling our stories, Didion warns to at least not get trapped into it too early. On the 24 year old singer, Joan Baez:

Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person. And, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her.

It’s heartening to know that it would be disastrous to be too good, too soon, and that it isn’t actually necessary to have a reputation at all.

Posted in Uncategorized


Rachel Wheeley - towel day 2017Rachel Wheeley is a comedian, psychology graduate and podcaster with comedy science podcast Level Up Human.

She was a senior studio director for the BBC, producing live news programmes like Today and comedy shows like The Vote Now Show during the 2015 general election. She left the Beeb in 2016.

deadtalk - twitter

Rachel has a history of science show called Dead Talks which tours science and music festivals with the Science Showoff Talent Factory. She also runs an annual celebration of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called Stand Up For Towel Day.

Sticky imageRachel writes about smart phone addiction after she walked into a lamp post whilst trying to put a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air gif on an email and realised she had a problem.


Rachel performs with Ugly Animal Preservation Society and Science Showoff, is an MC and headliner for Bright Club and has performed at Glastonbury, the Royal Institution and the Science Museum.

She is taking a split show to Edinburgh festival in the summer about how she grew up at Eton College. There will be stories about how she was once in a play with Eddie Redmayne and entirely failed to get of with Prince William. More details