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Need to unplug? There’s an app for that

New apps aim to help smartphone users retreat from their device dependency

“We use narcotics to treat narcotic addictions, so it makes sense,” said psychiatrist David Greenfield of the apps designed to limit smartphone use.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Luke Thomas felt addicted to his smartphone, so to break the habit he did what came naturally: He created a mobile app.

Though it may seem counterintuitive to fight technology with technology, Thomas’s app, Digital Detach, is more like an anti-app. It temporarily turns a smartphone into an old-fashioned “dumb phone” that can only make calls and send text messages.

But what about Snapchat? Candy Crush Saga? Those apps and other favorite distractions of compulsive users are disabled for a set period as Digital Detach imposes a timed detox session.

“Even when I don’t have the app running, it’s forced me to think, ‘Do I really need to be on this?’” said Thomas, who works in the Boston office of Safari Books Online and developed Digital Detach in his spare time.


So it’s come to this: We are so dependent on our devices that we even need them to help escape from them.

Digital Detach is among a growing number of mobile apps that use technology to help people unplug from technology, or at least put a buffer between their work and personal lives. People who resolved to make 2015 the year to be not-so-constantly connected can choose from dozens of downloadable services, from those that separate personal from professional communications, to those that can disable virtually all the functions of a smartphone.

Developers say they’re finding a surprisingly big audience for these aids. Kevin Holesh, a freelance app maker in Pittsburgh, stopped making new apps to work full time on Moment, a program he designed that monitors smartphone usage, after it became a big hit.

“The first version was downloaded like 100,000 times on the first day,” he said. “It just blew my mind. I’ve never seen 100,000 downloads on any other app I’ve worked on — probably all of them combined.”


Specialists say the emergence of these new tools reflects a culture in which the smartphone has almost become impossible to put down.

“We use narcotics to treat narcotic addictions, so it makes sense,” said David Greenfield, a psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in West Hartford, Conn. “Our smartphones have conditioned us to check them on an almost irrational basis.”

Greenfield and telecommunications giant AT&T published a study in November that found that 10 to 12 percent of adult smartphone users in the United States display symptoms of a compulsive behavior disorder. Roughly one in three admitted to feeling uncomfortable when they are without their smartphones for even a few minutes.

And, nearly two in three sleep with a mobile device in, or next to, their bed.

For people who are clinically hooked on their smartphones, Greenfield operates one of the country’s few rehab centers that treat tech addiction much like alcoholism or drug abuse. He offers 20-hour outpatient therapy programs that include discussions about damage to personal relationships and development of a relapse-prevention plan. Greenfield has been treating various high-tech addictions since the late 1990s, from video games to Internet pornography, but said he is seeing more patients than ever because mobile devices put temptation in people’s pockets.

At least two other facilities — reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability in Fall City, Wash., and Bradford Regional Medical Center in Bradford, Pa. — run inpatient tech addiction programs.

For those seeking milder interventions, there are apps at their fingertips.


Cambridge-based HeyWire got in front of the trend in spring 2013 with Business Messenger, an app that creates two communication channels on the same device to help users keep work life from interfering with private time.

The app enables smartphones to send and receive text messages from landline phones people use at work, so they don’t have to give out their cellphone numbers. It keeps those messages separate from personal texts, and provides an auto reply to tell business associates when they are off the clock.

“Yes, you could be always connected, but we definitely see the need for people to get off the grid, and they need technology-based tools to help them,” said HeyWire chief executive Meredith Flynn-Ripley. “We don’t take the hard-core stance of turning the phone off during non-business hours, and I don’t think the average business person wants that, anyway.”

Still that nuclear option exists. One of the most restrictive apps available is called Digital Detox, and it deactivates almost every feature on a mobile device. When the app is running, the only working function is 911 emergency dialing.

Users set the length of detox but, unlike with most apps, there is no easy way to tap out early. Without hacking skills, the only way to restore a smartphone early is with a factory reset, which wipes contacts, photos, music — everything.

The Digital Detach app that Thomas made doesn’t go that far. But unlike Digital Detox, which is free, Thomas charges $1.99 to download, figuring users will take their unplugging more seriously if they have to pay even a small sum.


“One thing I’ve noticed in myself is when I’m trying to start a new habit, if I put cash down I’m more likely to follow through,” Thomas said. “I want someone to come to that mental conclusion: ‘This is important to me, and I’m willing to pay a couple bucks for it.’ ”

The Moment app from Pittsburgh-based developer Holesh is free, although he charges for a family plan that tells parents how much time kids spend on devices, and lets them limit it. A three-month subscription costs $5.99, a year $19.99.

Holesh created Moment because he believed mobile devices were costing him and his girlfriend quality time together. The app doesn’t shut down any features; instead it lets users set daily goals for usage, such as 90 minutes of total app usage, monitors the time they spend tweeting and Facebooking, and sends increasingly pesky alerts as they approach or exceed their limits. “We’re definitely more conscious of our iPhone usage, which was always my ultimate goal,” said Holesh.

As he claimed this victory, Holesh was talking to a reporter on his iPhone, naturally. He was on the Hawaiian island of Kauai — on his honeymoon.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.