Growing up, my mother had a blue kitchen timer that she would dial back to the thirty-minute mark anytime my siblings and I plopped down in front of the TV to duke it out on the PlayStation or Wii. She maintained the importance of resting our eyes and on the need to not be a couch potato. Much to her credit, my relationship with large screens—especially ones with game consoles attached—became pretty regimented. Something just feels off about sitting on the bean bag for prolonged periods of time. It’s as if I can feel my mom’s disapproving footsteps echoing down the hall upon hearing TV noises after the alarm had gone off—Timothy! Time’s up, turn your game off… No, I don’t care that you haven’t saved the President yet. If you couldn’t save him in thirty minutes, he’s probably dead already. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to realize that somewhere deep in my brain, a switch was flicked, triggering some Pavlovian instinct to limit TV time. Ironically, the same couldn’t be said of mom’s quest for more “Tasty!”, “Delicious!”, and “Divine!” announcements from Mr. Toffee, Candy Crush Saga’s diligent cartoon mentor and guide.
A few weeks ago, while procrastinating on writing an essay by staring at the spinning refresh wheel on the top of my News Feed—hoping that by the time the wheel stopped something exciting would have happened in the social world (nothing happened, it was 2 AM). It occurred to me that, somewhere between my abortive attempts at retaking the White House from Russian soldiers and my mom’s endless candy journey, our relationships with our devices have gone horribly wrong.
With the topic of digital addiction back in the public conscious and media circulation, developers have also been pushing out different apps promising to curb time spent on our devices and largely fall into three categories:
- “Removing” addictive elements: Feedless—the newly launched poster child of the first category—literally removes the feed from platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, claiming to help users “take control of [their] time, and say goodbye to mindless scrolling.” Grayscaling has also been a popular method to make device screens less appealing by stripping away color.
- Bundling notifications: Apps in the second category bundle notification alerts so as to limit those constant and alluring “dings!” until we are able to look through them all at once.
- Providing users with more information: Moment acts to deliver users more information on their digital usage with metrics such as total time spent on device and time spent per app.
However, these tools are not without their flaws:
- Feedless: It only works on Safari, and not on the Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter app. In removing the addictive feed, it also destroys the user experience of the social media platform. While the feed certainly is populated with a lot of unimportant elements, I’m not convinced it justifies a scorched earth tactic.
- Grayscaling: If left permanently on, people get used to the black and white.
- Notification bundling: It aggregates notifications and unleashes it all on the user when prompted… won’t people feel overwhelmed when confronted by a sudden flow of messages, emails, and app alerts?
- Information-providing apps: They don’t make it easier to put the device down. While it gives us you a good idea of how we use our devices, it probably will only be effective for the most disciplined among us.
Despite these deficiencies, the mentioned tools still offer better alternatives to native settings found on our devices. Good intentions and design aside, none of the apps are multi-faceted enough in their approach as they all only seek to mediate one particular aspect of addiction. Traditional addiction treatment, after all, does not seek to lessen addictive properties of the substance/action in question but to build personal responsibility. However, while the indispensable nature of our devices certainly requires us to make them less addictive, the more important goal for any app will be to nudge users towards a behavioral change. That is, regimenting relationship with devices so that while we can (and should!) enjoy and use our devices to their fullest capabilities, we should also be able to know when to set it down.
So no, current apps aren’t very good at helping us develop a healthier relationship with our devices, but a combination of certain elements from each could do the trick. In thinking about what features an ideal app would incorporate to accomplish the intended behavioral change, I determined that they would need to satisfy the following requirements:
- Be able to nudge the user off the device without impairing underlying functionality
- Have a way to keep the user from picking up the device again
- Include more information about device use for self-monitoring
- Parental controls
- Have a curated coaching plan with concrete steps and principles to guide the user through a slow but purposeful process.
There are many ways to go about fulfilling these requirements, and I have outlined below a preliminary sketch of what this app could look like.
As I mentioned, setting the device in grayscale removes attention-grabbing color and replaces it with bland black and white. Here’s a short clip from the new Wreck-It Ralph 2 trailer with the right in original color and the left set in grayscale:
Note how much more grabbing the colorful side is compared to the grayscale side. Color’s a powerful thing. However, having our devices set permanently in grayscale means that we become accustomed to the banality or as a friend put it eloquently, “Instagram looks like crap, but I still look at it.”
Which means we have to use this tool selectively, only deploying it when we want to get off the screen. Perhaps something like this:
Now the question becomes when exactly do we turn on the grayscale? Certainly, every time we pick up our devices we have a different intention in mind and spend a different amount of time on the device. Therefore, we’ll need user input and direction at the beginning of every session to determine when they want to be reminded that “time’s up”.
Or maybe we could even set a gesture limit to keep us accountable for how many swipes and scrolls we allow ourselves on our favorite time-killing social media platform. Instead of limiting what shows up in our feeds—as Feedless does—we constrain the infinite scroll. What we want is to get off the device and removing content just results in a frustrating experience. We want less friction and more control over what we get to see and how much we see, not the opposite.
Regardless of what the final metric is, this will be the most important governing factor of how we use this tool to help us get off the screen. Ideally, another parameter could be video count. For example, prior to a Netflix or YouTube session, we set a video limit of three, then at the conclusion of the third video, grayscale is switched on to remind us to turn the device off.
This one is pretty straightforward. We succeeded in getting off our device and now we just need to stay off.
During our grayscale limit selection, we could also decide to hold our future selves accountable and place a five-minute moratorium and go take a bathroom break or a two-hour lockdown for a deep work session.
Apple Health for Screens
Extra information on how we use our devices may not be an effective deterrent in of itself, but in conjunction with other elements, it could be insightful and allow us to hold ourselves to more realistic standards when setting our grayscale and lockout limit parameters. Furthermore, if paired with a digital twelve-step program, the extra information could help us curate a better plan.
Why limit ourselves to only time on screen? Maybe tracking our time on device when in grayscale could be helpful too.
We would also want more granular detail on exactly which apps we are spending the most time on. This particular view is also informed by separate sessions as noted by the timestamp. (I now realize I should have logged the Facebook block as two different entries to make this more obvious)
Ideally, these could potentially incorporate as much detail as we think could be useful. How exactly did I spend all that time on Facebook? Was it video? Messenger? Stalking an ex? Though unlikely given that our usage data are Facebook’s most valuable assets, it would be more effective in targetting specific behaviors on Facebook than wholesale scrubbing away the News Feed.
Parental Monitoring Unit
With any app claiming to moderate digital usage comes the massive market of concerned parents—sometimes kitchen timers and mothers are not enough. Much like how a parent could monitor data usage on the mobile family plan, there can be something similar for screen time.
Now, what kind of parental monitor system can come without a hard cap on total allowed screen time?
Potentially, parents could implement a time limit on specific apps. Say, time spent on Khan Academy can be unlimited while NBA 2k18 is only allowed to be open for no more than fifteen-minutes a day.
We should also incorporate functions such as a lock on all devices during meals, family movie night, or homework time. My mom would want that.
Sub Me In Coach!
At the most foundational level, we need a coaching program that helps us slowly build a habit of staying off devices. Now, I don’t profess to know enough about the psychological steps involved in the development of something like this, but I do know that habits must start small and slowly—very slowly—build up to something bigger. Perhaps we could gamify the process to make it more fun and in turn motivate people. We could set achievements and milestone markers similar to ones found in video games.
Only checked Instagram twice in a day! : 10 points
Less than 30 minute total screen time! : 25 points
Spent fifteen hours straight on Netflix 🤨 : -50 points
Whatever the method, it is important for the system to recognize that new habits are hard to develop and easy to destroy. To start successfully changing behavior, we must be unafraid to set small—even laughable—goals and aim for quick wins that inspire us to keep going. Regaining responsibility over our digital habits is the long goal, the coach must keep us focused on the little things so that many weeks or months down the line the changes will be so gradual that we wouldn’t necessarily notice our growth.
We must reestablish the rules for what and how we use these devices in our lives. We must realize what the fundamental relationship our devices have in our lives, indispensable but not omnipresent.
Thought experiment aside, there are obviously severe limitations to what can be currently done on OS’ due to the security and incentive structures in place. Apple absolutely wants you to spend more time on your phone downloading apps and playing games—they made $11.5 billion in 2017 from the App Store—just as Facebook and Google depend on your infinite scrolls to rake in that sweet sweet ad revenue. Moreover, while there has been a lot of hype surrounding a drop in user engagement following Facebook’s most recent tweaks to News Feed—roughly 50 million hours every day—spread across all users, this only amounts to about 1-2 minutes less per user per day.
Despite the limitations, there are workarounds to be found as shown by the current suite of anti-addiction apps. I’d rather have apps like those than nothing at all. Which is not to say improvements and integration can’t be had. If my ideal vision is little more than an improved and medleyed version of current apps then I contend that it can be built, perhaps not as streamlined or powerful, but built and hopefully useful nonetheless. Our smart devices have augmented our daily routines and interactions—but they won’t take it over. And as tech evolves, developers, designers, and bored college students will evolve along with it.