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Addicted to your smartphone? Now there’s an app for that.

How can we use technology without it taking over our lives? See expert advice on how to be a smarter you with technology. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)
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Did you text? Sorry, I can’t see messages right now. Arianna Huffington locked my phone.

The media tycoon turned wellness entrepreneur wants to keep you out of your phone, too, with a new app called Thrive. Its goal is to make it cool for a generation hooked on smartphones to occasionally detox.

Among Thrive’s capabilities: helping you humblebrag you can’t be reached by sending text responses on your behalf. As in, “Try me later, I’m busy Thriving.” (I hope my boss doesn’t mind.)

If smartphones are the new cigarettes, Thrive is a new kind of nicotine patch. The app won’t cure everything that’s screwed up about our relationship with phones — Thrive is an add-on to the software that runs the phone, and it only begins to address the social illness that compels us to be always connected. But it’s something you can actually do to break the spell of these glowing rectangles.

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There’s a paradox to using technology to wean us from technology, but Huffington has an explanation. “Going to sleep with the lights off doesn’t make us anti-electricity,” she told me. “In the same way, turning off our phones to be able to reconnect with the people and things we most value doesn’t make us anti-technology.”

What’s surprising is that Thrive is a partnership with Samsung, which made the free app available this week for owners of its Note 8 phone. The world’s largest maker of smartphones is acknowledging that its products can be unhealthy. “Helping people figure out when and how to disconnect from technology from time to time is 100 percent core to our mission of creating technology that puts people at the center,” Samsung’s chief marketing officer, Marc Mathieu, told me. (Thrive is available only from Samsung, but see below for suggestions on making an Apple iPhone less addictive, too.)

Thrive fires a shot back at what’s sometimes called the “attention economy,” the apps that have made gazillions by hijacking our brains with likes, alerts and other irresistible distractions. Donald Trump tweets are its crack cocaine.

Researchers and psychiatrists haven't reached a consensus on whether phones are creating wide-scale “addictions,” like gambling or drugs. But there’s plenty of evidence that adults and children alike are having problems: The arrival of smartphones corresponded with a 60 percent rise in the number of children who experienced at least one episode of depression. When’s the last time your family had a meal without phones present? And how often do you find yourself “vortexing”: picking up your phone to do one thing and finding yourself, an hour later, still on it doing something else?

I’ve tried many ways to win back time and attention from my phone: Banning it from the bedroom, turning off app notifications and switching its color screen to a less-appealing grayscale. But making phones less useful isn’t the solution. We need phones designed to help us be better humans — and, at least for now, humans still need to sleep and breathe deeply and stare out the window every once in a while. Occasionally, we need to be bored.

“The idea is, how do we keep the best things about our phones while making it possible for us to disconnect, recharge, do deep work, have an undistracted meal with a friend and sleep without having the phone buzzing nearby?” Huffington said. Figuring out balance is key to the future of the smartphone.

Huffington left her job as editor of The Huffington Post in 2016 to devote her time to projects including a start-up called Thrive Global, focused on helping people fight burnout and exhaustion. Thrive isn’t just an app, it’s a lifestyle brand, with a book, a podcast and even an online course.

The Thrive app’s main function is an egg timer for your brain. Launch it, and choose an amount of time you want to spend napping, going for a walk or focusing on work. While you’re in Thrive Mode, the phone will suppress incoming calls, notifications and messages. You can list a few VIP folks who still get through or choose a so-called Super Thrive Mode to block everything.

With your permission, Thrive also collects data about how much time you spend using specific apps (which it doesn’t store or use for anything beyond the app functionality). It presents this feedback in a rather unsettling pie chart: I spent how many hours on Instagram? But then you can self-impose limits (say, 15 minutes on Instagram) after which Thrive cuts you off.

iPhones have some of these capabilities — if you dig around in the settings. Separate do not disturb and driving modes can block calls and messages, and the battery information page can give you a rough sense which apps you use most. An app called Moment can track how much time you spend on your phone, and Freedom can block access to certain apps and websites.

Under the gun from investors and customers for the iPhone’s potentially addictive influence on children, Apple last week said in a statement, “We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them.”

So what makes Thrive any different from “do not disturb” — or just the off button? The app is bidirectional, sending out messages to people while you’re in Thrive Mode to let them know you’re not just ignoring them. There’s a default message (“I’m in Thrive Mode”) with a time it will end and a link to more info about the app. I customized mine to say, “Arianna Huffington told me to put my phone away.”

Thrive would be more helpful if its response messages could also reach into emails, Facebook Messenger and Slack. (iPhones can also send canned responses when you’ve turned on do not disturb.)

But tech fixes can go only so far. Creating new habits is hard. Can Huffington, her celebrity friends, or even a company with the marketing heft of Samsung make it socially acceptable to disconnect? “We want to make it a status symbol,” Huffington said.

My friends were amused when they got my Thrive do-not-disturb messages. I asked Huffington how she’d feel about getting a Thrive notice from an employee. “I would give that person a promotion,” she said. “I believe the people who do that are the people you can trust to take care of themselves and not burn out.”

Okay, we can’t all work for Arianna Huffington. But I’m hopeful Thrive will at least inspire competition between Apple, Google and Samsung to design less-addictive phones. They could use artificial intelligence and the data they already collect to understand what notifications are truly urgent, to identify unhealthy trends and (in the extreme) suggest sources of help. Teaching a phone who your VIPs are and what time you want to get to bed could become part of setup.

I’d love a phone that stops news alerts and other non-urgent notifications in the morning, so I’m not tempted to check my phone even before I answer nature’s call. Call it “Big Mother” tech: Sure it wants to control you, but ultimately it has your best interest at heart.

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