Used to be the only time you’d hear the words “digital” and “well-being” together was in a proctologist’s office. But the term is going mainstream, as Google and Apple have integrated new digital well- being features into their latest operating systems. This is the biggest step yet by major Silicon Valley companies to acknowledge smartphone overuse and help fight it.
Special tools in the new Android P dashboard enable tracking of total phone usage, time spent with individual apps, notifications received, and even how often you unlock your phone. The app timer sets usage limits on specific apps, and their icons grey-scale when you exceed them. (You can still use the app, but you’ll feel guiltier.) A “shush” feature silences the phone when it’s turned over. And Wind Down grey-scales the screen at a select time each evening, so you’re less tempted to use your phone near bedtime. The updated Do Not Disturb mode blocks notifications (except from specified contacts) to avoid sleep disruptions.
Apple has built similar functions into iOS 12. Screen Time delivers activity reports on iPhone and app usage. And a Do Not Disturb feature permits display dimming and notification muting at specific locations and for set times. Kids? Track their phone/app use and set limits via your family Apple ID.
Tools promoting phone control are not new. Thrive and Space exist for Android, along with Moment and Night Shift for iOS. What’s unique is that operating systems now house this stuff. But will any of it make a difference? Or will tracking our daily usage become a new addiction? At the least, it has the potential to make more people aware of when their digital habit is interfering with a balanced life.
According to a 2017 study of Japanese high school students, smartphone use of more than five hours daily was linked to shorter sleep duration and insomnia. More alarming, smartphone use of only two hours or more per day for social networking was tied to an increased risk of depression.
San Francisco State researchers found that study subjects who used their phones most often were also the most depressed, anxious, and lonely. Study co-author Dr. Erik Peper says, “The behavioural addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain, similar to how opioid addiction is experienced.”
Professor Daniel Kruger, who co-authored a study on phantom communication experiences (if you feel or hear notifications when none are there, you could be digitally dependent), welcomes the new tools and corporate attention.
“They’ll probably help users better regulate their phone use,” he says, “and also give new opportunities for those with problematic cell-phone use.”