Digital Health is Too Important to Trust Apple and Google

Posted on June 27, 2018 by Mehedi Hassan in Android, Apple, Google, iOS, Mobile with 14 Comments

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.

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?

Almost.

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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