Digital Health is Too Important to Trust Apple and Google

Apple and Google are both taking steps to help their customers use their phones less frequently, indicating an underlying problem with the design of the technology we use every day. Indeed, people are increasingly becoming more and more addicted to their phones and other smart devices. This is thanks largely to the fear of missing out.

People, especially teenagers, are dangerously addicted to social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. This is by design: The more you use these apps, the more money these apps make for their makers. And so, companies like Facebook—which builds the world’s popular social networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram—invest heavily in the development of products and services that help them grow and increase user retention.

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Instagram, for example, toyed with the idea of delaying notifications for new likes on posts specifically so that users would open the Instagram app more frequently.  The theory is that these users would become concerned when their posts weren’t getting many likes, and this would cause them to compulsively recheck for updates. Pretty clever, right?


It’s obvious that being glued to your phone isn’t healthy. And Apple and Google are implementing features in their respective mobile platforms to help users with their addictions: Both iOS 12 and Android P will come with new “digital health” features that limit how much a user uses their phone every day or how much time they are allowed to spend on individual apps each day. The idea is pretty straightforward: If you think you are using an app too much, you can simply put a limit on that usage, and once the limit is reached, your phone will prevent you from using the app unless the limit is reset. Or you could simply ignore the limit and continue using the app.

And I believe that’s the main problem with these new digital health features. It’s way too easy to ignore the limits, something which has proven time and time again to be unsuccessful at treating addiction. For example, if you leave a wine bottle right in the view of someone who’s trying to stay sober, it’ll be difficult for them to not drink. And that’s essentially the same scenario with the digital health limits that are so easy to ignore or disable, especially on iOS 12. Even though Apple will let parents easily control the app limits and screen time limit on their children’s phones, the limits make it too easy for general users to ignore.

Don’t get me wrong, these new digital health features—on both platforms—are still incredibly important. As someone who is glued to his phone every day, I see how these digital health features could really help me avoid distractions, care less about missing out, and actually focus on the real world. My phone usage is obnoxious, and the detailed reports you can get on phone usage on iOS 12 are really helpful at identifying my most terrible phone usage habits.

For example, I apparently pick up my phone every 4 minutes each day — if that’s not unhealthy, I don’t know what is. And I can assure you there are other users around my age who pick up the phone more frequently. Put simply: we really don’t want to miss out on the snaps, the Instagram DMs, the streaks, and the memes on Twitter. It’s an obnoxious world where fear of missing out essentially controls the user’s mind and behavior.

The solution?

Well, there isn’t one. Digital health limits help, but they most likely aren’t going to be effective at fully mitigating the issue. The improved Do Not Disturb features did help me with distractions and to focus a bit better on my schoolwork when studying for exams in the last few weeks. But I still found myself going back to Instagram and Snapchat every 15 or 20 minutes, or sometimes even after just 5 minutes. In fact, the problem got so bad that I ended up turning off my phone to actually focus on my studies.

Related, I had been planning to write this story ever since iOS 12 was first revealed but I never found the time to actually sit down and write because of the distractions of social media and…Fortnite. I’m writing this story right now on my phone sitting on a train underground, all in one go, mainly because I don’t have a network and there’s no Snapchat or Instagram to distract me.

Here’s the thing: Digital health is important. Focusing on the real world is important. And more importantly, actually missing out on some things could end up being healthy in the longer run. But to make sure we aren’t addicted to our phones, it should be our own responsibility to effectively use the new digital health features.

With companies like Facebook pushing you to watch more content on your phone with platforms like IGTV and implementing other growth hacking techniques on its platforms, it’s getting harder to stay away from your phone than ever before. Apple and Google are doing work to improve things with these coming new features. But ultimately, it’s our responsibility to actually put them to use.

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Conversation 14 comments

  • rosyna

    27 June, 2018 - 1:44 pm

    <p>“<span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">It’s obvious that being glued to your phone isn’t healthy.”</span></p><p><br></p><p>Why? Is there a peer-reviewed study that says this? Or is it more of the type of thing that people said in 1908 about reading being unhealthy?</p>

    • jrickel96

      27 June, 2018 - 2:18 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#286635"><em>In reply to rosyna:</em></a></blockquote><p>I don't think anyone took the idea that reading was unhealthy in 1908 seriously. </p><p><br></p><p>The issue here is how these devices impact our ability to socialize, understand, and even empathize with one another.</p><p><br></p><p>I work with a lot of people in their early 20s. One thing they all have in common: they all wish they were born 10 years earlier. They are interested in what the world was like before they had a screen in their face throughout the day. There's a genuine hunger for real community and digital devices are not helping there.</p><p><br></p><p>I've said for a while that a pullback is coming. The tech isn't going to disappear, but it came on so fast that people could not find a balance. Speaking to a 22 year old friend who recently had a child, I asked her if she'd want her daughter to have a phone like she did and be on social media like she was. The answer was an emphatic no, emphasized by one or two swear words.</p><p><br></p><p>We found some semblance of balance when we had desktop and laptop computers because it was easy to separate them from us when we'd be walking, be out and about, etc. But smartphones dramatically changed the equation and did so quickly – as did the proliferation of wi-fi and cellular data.</p><p><br></p><p>Now the struggle becomes finding that balance once again – and whoever can find an organic way of doing that, will lead. It's not through speakers or assistants – those are niche fields that have their uses, but will find limited audiences. </p><p><br></p><p>I don't have the answer as to what this will entail (if I did, I would be developing it and not sharing it here), but whoever finds a way for us to organically use these technologies while also being able to re-establish older form ways of communication and fun times out that can separate us from them will lead the way forward. </p><p><br></p><p>That is the challenge. Smartphones are a step but that's all they are. Their decline is already beginning (look at the sales numbers) and it is a long way down. They won't disappear tomorrow, but the world is ready for the next step. We just have to figure out what they step will be.</p><p><br></p>

  • dcdevito

    27 June, 2018 - 1:46 pm

    <p>I couldn't agree more, great article. But on a side health note, I do use Google Fit, but only as the hub. I keep my exercise data in Runtastic Pro, nutritional data in MyFitnessPal and mental health data in Headspace (meditation). I plan on getting a band/smartwatch in the near future and will rely on something like fitbit for that too. In my personal experience using both iOS and Android for Health, they both frankly suck. iOS apps are better but HealthKit was a shitshow, I had more issues getting apps to sync and basically had to do the most ridiculous steps and workarounds to get apps to sync with it. Thankfully Google Fit is way more flexible but Google doesn't give a rat's ass about Google Fit. So pick your poison. </p><p>If anyone has a better "hub" app/service for exercise and nutrition data please drop me a line! Thanks </p><p>(Also – avoid Strava, worst app I've veer used to sync with anything)</p>

    • rmlounsbury

      Premium Member
      27 June, 2018 - 2:10 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#286636"><em>In reply to dcdevito:</em></a></blockquote><p>I agree on the health hub from. Nobody seems to really have a great end-to-end platform to hookup to. Fitbit probably has the best one I've used but not without it's own flaws. One thing I'd like to see more of is taking all your different data points from heart rate, weight, exercise, etc… then figure out if there are any markers of a potential health issue and signal you. Apple probably does the best in this arena and seems to be the only one making this investment. </p><p><br></p><p>ISo, Fitbit is probably the best health hub that I've used. The only thing that bothers me is that Fitbit elected to not use Wear OS for their smartwatches. This means if I want to go Fitbit for the smart watch I have to embrace Fitibit's ecosystem and not my well established world in Google. It dosn't help that Fitbit also decided to use their own payment platform rather than Google Pay. My little local credit union will probably never embrace Fitbit's system. </p><p><br></p><p>I'm curious to see if Google launches their own Wear watch and in doing so starts investming more into Google Fit. This is ultiamtely what I would like to see. That and integrations with third party fitness platforms such as Withings and such. </p><p><br></p><p>Okay, that was a longer rant that I intended. :)</p>

  • markbyrn

    27 June, 2018 - 2:26 pm

    <p>Perhaps responsible adults can decide to regulate themselves as opposed to calling it an addiction.</p>

    • AnOldAmigaUser

      Premium Member
      27 June, 2018 - 3:03 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#286650"><em>In reply to markbyrn:</em></a></blockquote><p>Because, as a species, we are so good at avoiding addictive behaviours?</p><p>These social applications are meant to be addictive, they have psychologists help make them so, because they are not making money if you are not using them. They collect even more information about us while we use the apps, which allows them to push our buttons even more.</p><p>Until we value real friends, actual intelligence, and reality over digital friends, artificial (pseudo?) intelligence, and virtual reality, the situation is unlikely to improve.</p>

      • markbyrn

        28 June, 2018 - 9:13 am

        <p>I prefer to reserve the term addict to something truly destructive (e.g. opoids) as opposed to a 'obsessive' devotee of some activity such as doing cross-word puzzles, watching TV, or yes, spending "too much" time on the phone or the computer.&nbsp; If the media (inc. tech media websites) thinks this is a grave issue, they themselves need to start regulating their viewership to curb 'addiction'.&nbsp;For example, if you read Thurott for more than 15 mins in a day, the site could ban your IP for 24 hours and direct you to the nearest gym.&nbsp;If you watch CNN or Fox News for more than one hour, a warning pops up that you're a news junkie and the TV turns off.&nbsp;If that sounds asinine, that's what I think of Google or Apple being pushed to play 'addition' regulator nanny.</p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • Jeffery Commaroto

    27 June, 2018 - 2:44 pm

    <p>These digital health initiatives giving metrics and some controls are nice but they seem destined to be as influential as calorie counts. Something we are told we should pay attention to and some of us do for short bouts before becoming immune because we are addicted to a ready supply of cheap food tailor-made to addict us. 300 calories or 3,000 calories that slice of cake just looks good! </p><p><br></p><p>Worse I don't know that calories is a good judge of health. I also don't know that picking my phone up every X minutes instead of every Y minutes is better for me. Considering how wrong/uninformed government agencies, researchers and advocacy groups have been when setting guidelines in the past about health (calorie counts, fat content, drug usage, exercise requirements, food group = bad) I probably wouldn't follow their recommendations anyway.</p><p><br></p><p>Then you have the reality that tech corporations are likely to just pay all of this lip service. The same as big food companies that make big marketing pushes about how they are making organic, all natural, healthy changes to their food that are really just more fattening chemicals that raise profits. Basically, "Here is our app to track the usage of other apps for your he… NEW ANIMATED EMOJI, NEW ANIMATED EMOJI AR, VR, BUY!!!!"</p>

  • curtisspendlove

    27 June, 2018 - 3:09 pm

    <p><em>Here’s the thing: Digital health is important. Focusing on the real world&nbsp;is&nbsp;important. And more importantly, actually missing out on some things could end up being healthy in the longer run. But to make sure we aren’t addicted to our phones, it should be our own responsibility to effectively use the new digital health features.</em></p><p><br></p><p>I liked this paragraph. </p><p><br></p><p>Absolutely enforced limits will just lead people to either increase the limit so they never hit it, or turn it off altogether. </p><p><br></p><p>I can’t remember if they said it in the keynote, or interviews afterward, but a couple Apple employees chatted about the “calorie counting” example. Those people “counting calories” are more likely to be taking calorie counting seriously, and actually trying to change. </p><p><br></p><p>Anecdote alert: I’ve known for years now that I would have significant health issues soon crop up if I didn’t curb my carbohydrate intake. I made progress, but limited progress. I now have “pre-diabetes”. I’m more serious now, but if I don’t get it under control soon, I’ll have full on diabetes. And if I don’t fix it then, it will eventually kill me. Motivation ramps up on a scale. We all have to choose what is important to us. </p><p><br></p><p>Unfortunately, humans being humans, it usually takes something fairly catastrophic to effect lasting change. </p><p><br></p><p>Is your phone a symptom of an addiction? Maybe, maybe not. Each person is different. That is how addictive behavior works. You can’t treat the symptom, you treat the “disease”.</p><p><br></p><p>It isn’t up to Anheuser-Busch to stop selling you silver bullets if those bullets will one day kill you. It is up to you to not buy them. It sucks, and it is hard. Also, there is always “the next addiction”. That is also how addictive personality disorder works. </p><p><br></p><p>I struggle to make sure I don’t just juxtapose an old addiction with a new (gaming is more challenging to me than anything else now—I have games with multiple thousands of hours sunk into them—these years I’m better at self regulating).</p><p><br></p><p>But take it from a guy with a 14 year “chip”. I fight it every day. I see it every week. If “technology addiction” is really a true addiction, then it needs to be treated as one. And if that is the case, no nothing Apple, Google, or anyone else does will solve it. As Mehedi concludes in the paragraph I quoted above: at that point it is a personal struggle.</p><p><br></p><p>My best advice. If you have a problem, admit it. Then fix it. You’ll need help. There is an excellent graphics card outside your doors, the best graphics card in the universe. And a lot of people to help you put down the distractions and actually interact with them. And I bet you’ll smile a lot more than when staring at your phone or computer. ;)</p>

  • Waethorn

    27 June, 2018 - 4:13 pm


  • Daekar

    27 June, 2018 - 9:00 pm

    <p>And this is why there are no social media apps on my phone. I suffered the compulsion you describe with Facebook for a few weeks, realized what had happened, and immediately uninstalled the app. Haven't looked at it since and never will. </p>

  • dalef

    28 June, 2018 - 12:44 pm

    <p>I would be cautious about expanding the definition of addiction. If someone is doing something that is harmful to themselves or others, and is experiencing difficulties ceasing this behavior, then than would be a good candidate to fall under the addiction umbrella.</p><p><br></p><p>However, if someone is spending a great deal of time performing an activity that they enjoy, and nobody, including themselves, is harmed, I would not classify that as addiction.</p><p><br></p><p>Even before smartphones, many people spent a considerable amount of time doing things that they loved. Some people spent a great deal of time reading books, magazines, or comic books. Others spent significant amounts of time watching television. There were some who went all-out into their hobbies and interests, such as fishing, woodworking, automobile modification, amateur radio, traveling, boating, motorcycle riding, knitting, sewing, crocheting, gardening, etc.</p><p><br></p><p>If someone is neglecting their responsibilities because of a non-essential activity, then that is a problem. However, if someone is just spending much of their free time doing something that they love, I would not consider that a negative.</p>

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