iOS 12: How Screen Time and Digital Health Can Make Your More Productive

Apple's Screen Time launches just after Google's Digital Wellbeing.

Silicon Valley has a bold new approach to smartphone use — switch them off and do something else.

Apple released iOS 12 this week with a new “Screen Time” feature, tracking total usage time, producing weekly reports, and even blocking access to apps after user-set time limits. Google introduced a similar feature called “Digital Wellbeing” with Android Pie last month, days after Facebook and Instagram rolled out their own monitoring tools. It all seems like it’s sprung up out of nowhere, but the data suggests tech exhaustion has been taking root for some time.

“In the last eight months, and in this year alone, we’ve just been growing like crazy, because mindfulness and digital wellness has just seemed to have gone mainstream,” Alanna Harvey, chief marketing officer and co-founder of screen time app Flipd, tells Inverse. “I think that really what’s happening is that Google and Facebook and Apple and Instagram are all noticing this trend that’s happening, and they’re trying to be part of it.”

Watch the Screen Time Presentation at 2018 WWDC

Harvey cited data released last month by Pew Research Center, which shows 54 percent of American teens feel they spend too much time on their phones, and 51 percent feel their parent is distracted by their device during in-person conversations. Around 57 percent have tried to limit their use of social media, a figure that stands in sharp contrast to the stereotype of the phone-clutching teen. Most of Flipd’s growth over the past eight months has come from millennials that came of age in the smartphone boom.

“I think that it’s because there’s self awareness, this realization that they don’t want to spend all their time online, and they need tools and help to actually spend more time offline and do it in a way that sort of makes sense for them,” Harvey says. “It might not make a lot of sense for someone who’s in their 40s or 50s. And they’re gonna say, ‘Well, why don’t you just put your phone away? I don’t understand, why don’t you just turn it off?’ It’s different for this generation.”

It’s in this context, at the Worldwide Developers’ Conference in June, that Apple unveiled its new feature. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, told the audience that “Screen Time empowers you with both insight and control over how you spend your time.”

Not everyone is convinced. Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked, found that around 80 percent or more of people’s free time is taken up with looking at screens. However, he’s skeptical that simply measuring time spent on the phone will help users cut back.

“I suspect most people, even after realizing how much time they’re spending, will lack the motivation to use their phones less often or for shorter periods, while also being unsure about how to effectively curb their usage in the long run,” Alter said in a statement.

Watch Samsung Demonstrate the Galaxy Watch’s digital health features.

Effective or otherwise, Apple’s feature could spell trouble for third-party solutions like Flipd. Getting “Sherlocked” is a popular refrain in the developer community, arising from Apple’s 2003 update of the Mac’s Sherlock search tool that rendered Karelia Software’s third-party Watson tool largely unnecessary. Harvey, however, sees a need for Flipd on iOS 12.

“I think that what Apple is doing with screen time is no different than having their own fitness tracker in the phone,” Harvey says. “And yet, it doesn’t completely crowd out other companies from having fitness tracking communities, and like run tracker, and all of these different types of platforms that really dig a lot deeper than the surface level feature that Apple has created.”

Harvey also remains skeptical that Apple and others share the same enthusiasm about getting people to put down their phones. Unlike these new solutions that simply measure total time spent on the phone, Flipd focuses on the longest unbroken length of time a user leaves the smartphone alone, in a bid to break the habit of repeatedly picking up the phone. Harvey cites an example of a university professor that got his students to download and use the app, resulting in far greater engagement and more participation.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously set limits on screen time with his children’s devices, sitting together and chatting at dinner rather than looking at screens. With “Screen Time,” Apple could encourage more people to take a similar stance.

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