Android 9 Pie Feature Focus: Digital Wellbeing

Posted on August 14, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 5 Comments

Available now in Beta form, Google’s Digital Wellbeing encompasses three new Android 9 Pie features: An app timer, a Wind Down mode, and a dashboard to manage it all.

Digital Wellbeing aims to solve a growing problem in which smartphone users, especially, develop addictive and unhealthy relationships with their devices. And while it may seem paradoxical that Google, like Apple, should strive to help its customers use its products less, it actually makes sense. After all, a healthy and happy user base is one that will be around to buy new phones down the road.

As important for these platform makers—as well as companies like Facebook and Twitter—they represent a formal response to complaints from governments that their products are specifically designed to form bad habits.

(For a more complete look at this problem, please read a 2017 Wired interview with former Googler Tristan Harris and/or view his TED talk on this topic.)

“Our team has heard so many stories from people who are trying to find the right balance with technology,” Google’s Sameer Samat said during the firm’s Google I/O 2018 keynote in May. “Helping people with their digital well-being is more important to us than ever.”

It’s not clear to me that this was ever important to Google, though previous Android versions did include some basic features for minimizing distractions like Do Not Disturb and the ability to (laboriously) configure what can notify you and how.

Whatever: Google has finally gotten the well-being religion, and it says that over 70 percent of Android users want help with digital well-being. And so, in Android 9 Pie, the firm is finally taking some major steps to help people overcome their phone addictions.

“Great technology should improve life, not distract from it,” the Google Wellbeing website explains. “We’re committed to giving everyone the tools they need to develop their own sense of digital wellbeing. So that life, not the technology in it, stays front and center.”

As I write this, Android 9 Pie is only available on a handful of phones—Google’s Pixel and Pixel 2 families and the Essential PH-1, I believe—so it is perhaps forgivable that Digital Wellbeing is currently only available in Beta. Less forgivable is how hard it is to install and use these features: I eventually gave up waiting on Google and just manually installed the APK on my Pixel 2 XL so I could see how it all worked.

Using a new Digital Wellbeing dashboard in Settings, you can monitor your phone habits, which include a running total of the day’s (display) unlocks, notifications, and total screen time. You can also access notifications and Do Not Disturb settings from this display.

If you dive into the day by tapping the top graphic, you can view your used apps by screen time, notifications received, and times opened, which is likewise interesting.

You can also select previous days from here, scrolling backward in time to the left.

Based on your usage, you may wish to set a timer on an app. When you do, you restrict your usage of that app to 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, or a custom length per day. It’s a soft block, of course, but the idea is that you’ll see the warning and think better of your time-wasting ways.

Speaking of which, you can dive into any app and view your hourly and daily usage over time. This interface lets you set an app timer too, of course. And configure notifications for that app.

You can also use this dashboard to configure a new feature called Wind Down that combines Do Not Disturb—from previous Android versions with a new gray-scale display functionality.

Basically, you enable this feature, set a schedule—11 pm to 7 am, perhaps—and then determine whether to enable a gray scale display (which is supposed to be much less enticing) and Do Not Disturb. There’s also a link to Night Link, a related feature that can reduce the phone’s blue light emissions on its own schedule.

Normal Android display (left) and in Wind Down mode (right)

I only have four days of data as I write this, and I wish I had had this feature available to me during my recent travels, as I was using my phone a lot more. But I’ll monitor this dashboard over time and experiment with some app timers to see whether Google’s first major effort to end smartphone addiction is working. Regardless, it seems like a solid step forward.

Also, it appears that more Digital Wellbeing features are coming soon. During Google I/O, the firm showed off an addition to Do Not Disturb, code-named Shush, that is not present in the Beta. Shush is a new gesture that automatically enables Do Not Disturb when you turn your phone over on a table. “You can focus on being present,” Samat said at I/O. “No pings, no vibrations, or distractions.”

Presumably, Shush will be added by the time Digital Wellbeing exits beta this fall.

Note: As a non-random aside, I’m not sure that “wellbeing” is even a word, at least here in the U.S. Some may note that “wellbeing” is acceptable in the U.K., perhaps, but Google is a U.S.-based company. And I believe the correct way to write that is “well-being.” For this reason, I’ve only used the “word” Wellbeing when referencing Google’s product/service/brand here. –Paul


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