by Alyson Krueger
It started out for Sam Machado as a relatively low-effort way to get free pizza. In 2014 Machado was a 20-year-old junior at California State University, Chico, when he came across an app called Pocket Points. The app earned him rewards such as free slices whenever he shut off his phone during classes. Machado, who was partly putting himself through school, was often strapped for cash. The easy rewards outweighed the temptation to pull out his phone in the middle of lectures.
But then something funny happened. Machado started paying attention to what his teachers were saying. “You’d be surprised how much more you can learn when you get off Instagram and Snapchat and take some actual notes,” says Machado.
You don’t say. Mobile phone use for many of us has become a consuming, nasty habit, and researchers are starting to dig into their impact on cognition, memory, emotions and a good night’s sleep. Americans spend five hours a day on their devices, and touch their phones on the order of 2,600 times a day, according to a 2014 study. Psychologists even coined a word, nomophobia, for the irrational fear of being without one’s phone. It’s gotten so bad that a cottage industry is popping up to encourage people to take a much-needed screen break.
“You’d be surprised how much more you can learn when you get off Instagram and Snapchat and take some actual notes.”
Pocket Points’ debuted at Chico State in the fall of 2014 and, within a few weeks, was in use by almost a third of Chico State’s 17,000 students. The app has since spread to almost 400 colleges in the U.S. and boasts more than a million users. The app uses a phone’s location to detect when students are on campus and, once they are, offers the choice to lock the mobile and start accruing points toward discounts or gifts at shops and restaurants. The longer the app stays locked, the more rewards they get. Similar to Groupon, Pocket Points makes money by taking a small percentage of whatever students buy at the stores and websites where they get the offers.
“I remember going into classrooms during the launch semester, and half the classroom would be whispering about how many points they had amassed,” said Machado. Pocket Points has raised $2 million from investors including Chris Friedland, founder of Build.com, and Bob Bozeman, formerly of Angel Investors LP, who helped fund Google and PayPal in the early days. It aims to be on every U.S. college campus within the year.
“People are going to become more conscious of how they are using their apps, and if they are having a positive or negative effect on their life,” said Mitch Gardner, co-founder and COO of Pocket Points. “Imagine smartphones are like a refrigerator, and you have all different types of food in there: spinach, chicken, ice cream, and soda. Eating ice cream is great, but you shouldn’t be doing it all day.”
Cinemark Theatres, which operates 339 movie houses and 4,561 screens in 41 states, has always urged filmgoers to silence their phones, but those pre-movie messages and ads just weren’t cutting it. So in 2012, it added a CineMode feature to its app that gives rewards toward snacks and tickets to customers who register when the film begins and keep their fingers off the phone during the show. If they check their phone even once, the prizes disappear.
Matthew Hassett, a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, is getting ready to pilot his app named QuietCoin. Similar to other apps, users will take a break from their phones, do something fun and meaningful in real life, and then redeem their QuietCoins for exclusive rewards such as a new type of workout class or a meal at a healthy restaurant. The tagline for the company: “Live deliberately.”
Says Hassett, “Reclaiming control of your time is a lot easier when you’re are able to recognize its value. The true gift of QuietCoin is getting your time back; the rewards are the icing on the cake.”
General managers of the Wyndham Grand hotel chain, which has properties in cities such as Chicago, Orlando and Tucson, were fed up with how much time parents spent on their phones on family vacations. An internal study found that 54 percent of its young guests thought their parents checked their phone too often; 32 percent reported feeling “unimportant” when it happened. Some parents would miss entire meals or activities because they were on their phones.
Americans spend five hours a day on their devices, and touch their phones on the order of 2,600 times a day, according to a 2014 study. Psychologists even coined a word, nomophobia, for the irrational fear of being without one’s phone.
So, on Feb. 23 it launched a mobile-free challenge to entice families away from their screens. Those who agreed stored their phones in a lock box for as much time as the family deems necessary to receive a 5 percent discount on their stay. The hotel bestows on phone-free guests a package of gifts for in-real-life fun: an Instax camera to take pictures the old-school way, an indoor s’mores kit, and instructions and supplies to make blanket forts in hotel rooms.
Right now, the program is rolled out in five hotels and will soon be available in all of them. It’s not an easy task for families to go back to non-mobile, old-fashioned fun, said Noelle Nicolai, who is in charge of the program and has the title Grand Resident Reconnector. “We look forward to welcoming any and all guests who are willing to take the challenge.”
Gardner, no surprise, thinks the turn-off movement is only in its very early stages. “You are going to see more apps that motivate positive behavior,” he said. “We know we are not even close to the ceiling of this opportunity.” With billions of phones in use and millions of apps to distract us, Gardner is not going to lack for nomophobics.
This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune.