How the biggest names in mobile are trying to curb smartphone addiction
If you're looking for similarities between the upcoming iOS 12 and Android P updates, an obvious one stands out: New tools for curbing our growing dependence on our smartphones. Here's how the giant mobile tech companies are going to try and get us to spend less time on our mobiles.
It's not just Apple and Google either. Facebook has confirmed it's working on a feature that will show you how much time you're spending (or wasting) inside the app, and the Facebook-owned Instagram has something similar in the pipeline too.
Third-party apps for managing the time we spend on our smartphones have been around for years, but there now seems to be a collective realization from the technology makers themselves that all this time staring at screens might not be good for us.
Part of the problem is that we don't yet fully understand how smartphones are changing our habits and our brains. The first iPhone only came out in 2007, and apps and ubiquitous web access have been around for less time than that, which makes any long-term study difficult to organize.
There's certainly some evidence that we're being hooked on social media, internet access, and mobile games designed to keep us coming back for more (and maybe spending a little more along the way). Notifications can act as rewards in the brain's wiring, so we often find ourselves unconsciously reaching for the mobile.
The end result can be fewer face-to-face interactions and shorter attention spans, but the time slots that we're using our phones in are causing even more problems. The blue light emitted by modern-day gadgetry messes with our circadian rhythms, putting our sleep patterns out of whack, and increasing the risk of all the health issues associated with not getting enough shut-eye.
Earlier this year, a study surveying over 100 US students found higher self-reported levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety among those individuals who used their phones most often. The researchers behind the report likened smartphone addiction to any other type of substance abuse.
Then there's over-reliance on our smartphones to tell us everything we need to know – making our powers of calculation and recall redundant. Another study published last year showed that the presence of a smartphone in a room reduced cognitive capacity in nearly 800 users, even when it was switched off.
At this stage it's probably impractical to smash our smartphones to bits and go back to landlines and desktop computers, but clearly the digital and mobile age is changing our behavior and maybe even our thinking – and not always for the better.
What Apple and Google are doing
Apple and Google are both now taking steps to tackle the problem, and seem prepared to try and face it head-on in the next releases of their smartphone operating systems – even if that means people end up using their iPhones or Android less as a result.
The suite of features coming to both iOS 12 and Android P are actually very similar, though different names for the tools are used, and they work in slightly different ways. In iOS 12, Apple is debuting what it calls Screen Time, a new dashboard in Settings that shows you which apps you're using most, how often, and at what times of the day.
The same dashboard shows you how often you pick up your phone, and which apps are blitzing you with notifications. Not only that, you can set self-imposed limits on how much time is spent inside each app – so if you only want to look at Facebook for 30 minutes a day, your iPhone will help you (the limits can be easily overridden, but it's a start).
The existing Do Not Disturb mode is getting a revamp too, with a more limited lock screen mode to use at night, and the option to leave Do Not Disturb switched on until you leave a certain location or a particular calendar event ends.
What's more, notifications from iOS 12 onwards can be tweaked so alerts from certain apps don't appear in the status bar or don't appear at all. It should be easier to separate the pointless notifications from ones that you actually need to see.
Over on Android P, the upcoming OS from Google has a similar set of features, including a screen simply called Dashboard that again shows you which apps you're using most often and for how long. There are also charts showing how often you're picking up your phone, and how many notifications you're getting from which apps.
As on iOS 12, Android P will let you set limits on usage times for certain apps, so you can put a lid on your Netflix binge-watching, or your incessant email-checking. In fact, the option is live in the YouTube app for Android now – a toggle switch to remind you to take a break after a certain number of minutes or hours.
There's also an upgraded Do Not Disturb mode, which hides visual alerts as well as audible pings, and a late-night Wind Down mode – when a preset time of night is reached, Android will start to gray out, encouraging you to put your phone down and get some shut-eye.
Third-party apps for maintaining focus and reducing distraction have been around for a long time, of course. However, it's telling that the biggest tech companies in the world – the ones designing our mobile software – are now getting serious about helping users maintain a healthy phone-life balance.