Controlling Screen Time

Yesterday Apple presented in public the 2018 updates of its operating systems. As happens every year, we got a glimpse of many new software features coming to the Mac, iPads, Apple Watches, Apple TVs, and iPhones. One feature coming to iOS — the system that runs iPhones and iPads — stands out not because of things it allows us to do with our devices, but because of what it doesn’t allow: to consume our time mindlessly with them.

The new feature, called Screen Time, allows users to examine the time they’ve spent using apps and websites, and set constraints on that time. For example, somebody could decide she only wanted to spend a maximum of thirty minutes every day using the Instagram app on her phone. The phone would keep track of the time she spends on the app, notify her when she was approaching her limit, and ultimately turn off access to the app altogether when she exceeded her allotted time. She could do this not just for herself, but also for her kids.

Apple is not the first to do this; Google has announced similar features for Android as part of its Digital Wellbeing program, and there are also third-party apps that accomplish similar goals. That said, Apple’s announcement is significant because of the company’s cultural pull and the prominence they’re giving this feature in their flagship OS.

Three thoughts come to mind right away. The first is that the existence of this feature is an acknowledgment that something is not right with the way we’re currently using our devices. The time you spend engaged with information environments comes at the expense of the time you spend engaged in your physical environment. When companies compete with each other for your attention, and you have a device with you that gives you instant access to all of them at any time, a race ensues in which you and your loved ones lose. By establishing “digital wellbeing” and “digital health” (Apple’s phrase) programs, the operating system vendors are admitting that this has become a problem.

The second thought is that as platform vendors, neither Google or Apple can directly control the form of the information environments their systems host; what they can control is the amount of time users can spend in those environments. You can think of the OS vendors as managing cities. Formerly, the city’s spaces — parks, buildings — were open 24×7, but now they can have operating hours. This is especially useful when some of the buildings contain casinos; some folks need a nudge to go home and sleep once in a while.

The third thought is that the OS vendors are giving users the tools to examine their behavior in these environments and the power to define their operating hours for themselves. This gives us as individuals the ability to engage more consciously with the information environments where we spend our time. I hope the push towards providing us more control over our attention will help steer companies away from business models that drive us towards continuous engagement.

I see the development of the platform vendors’ digital wellbeing initiatives as an encouraging sign. That said, it doesn’t relieve the organizations that design and produce websites and apps from the responsibility of ensuring those environments support the needs and aspirations of their users and society at large. Ideally the most addictive of these digital places will now look for ways to better align their business goals with the goals of their users.