Student and staff distraction is a big problem and last back in November I talked about novel behaviour strategies for tackling it. I’ve just come across another strategy in app form.

Hold was developed in Scandinavia, and has recently launched in London, just down the road from my office at UCL. Hold gives you points for not using your phone on campus (it uses Geolocation to detect when you’re at Uni). You press a button, and your phone is ‘on Hold’. You can still access it if you wish, but for every 20 minutes you don’t look at your phone, you get 10 points. Those points can be used to buy small prizes: scratch cards, chances to win holidays, discounts on popcorn, and at UCL, free coffee.

Hold is different from other distraction software. It’s code is a spell book of behaviour change wizardry. First, when you download the app. It slaps you around the face with a cold, hard statistic: your average daily usage. Once you log in, It takes the vague, undefined commitment you've just made to ‘use my phone less’ and turns it into a measurable, incremental system with rewards. It 'gamifies’ (itself a contested term) distraction by using accumulative ranking systems (I’m currently rank 6: a rookie) used by other apps (Snapchat’s snapstreak for example). Only Hold uses ranking to get you off your phone instead of keep you on it. It only works on university campuses, so it tackles an even more concrete problem: using your phone in a place you should be working.

The team that created Hold are not anti-tech. They just want you to decide when you use your phone, rather than the other way around. Hold has big plans for students here in the UK, and big plans are needed. We have a quiet public health crisis when it comes to mobile phone use. Our students learn less when they check their phones because it takes up to 30 minutes to get refocus after checking. The upcoming generation of students report anxiety if they are separated from their phones for 10 minutes. This does not bode well for a two-hour lecture.

Hold could be incorporated into lectures. A lecturer walks into the room. They clear their throat and say ‘the lecture is about to begin. Please put your phone on Hold’. Like magic, 150 students make a conscious collective commitment to not be distracted. They are then rewarded for doing so. Everybody around you is working towards uninterrupted concentration. Of course, you can quickly check your phone and burst the little red notification bubble, but do you want to be the person who gives in when your friends are soldiering on?

If you fail, there is no stick. You don't have your phone taken off you, nor does Hold give you a disgusted Emoji. Instead, you just re-start and have another go.

I think Hold has even wider uses. Lecturers and teachers across the country now use their phones during class. Professors peruse emails during conferences. Educators are also in thrall to their phones. We too, should put our phones on Hold during a lecture. And we should do so publicly. Of course, most of us won’t check our phone while teaching, but we can demonstrate our commitment to combating distraction by supporting our students.