Tech companies encourage us to be smart about phones

Will knowing how much you're using your phone help you cut back? Tech companies think so and are launching new technology to do just that.

Monitored screen time—it isn’t just for parents and kids anymore

To decrease phone usage, turn off notifications and don't sleep with your phone by your bed. (OHishiapply/Shutterstock)

Smartphones can be addictive. But some of the biggest tech companies may have found a solution with new tools to help users better understand their habits and usage.

Earlier this month, Apple unveiled the new iOS 12, which includes management tools for customers to control how they spend their time interacting with their devices.

"Screen Time creates detailed daily and weekly activity reports that show the total time a person spends in each app they use, their usage across categories of apps, how many notifications they receive and how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad," says Apple's June 4 press release. This service is also geared to parents who can automatically schedule a block of time when a child can't use the device.

The announcement came on the heels of a Google announcement about a similar feature available in the next release of Android, a beta version of Android P. The new dashboard shows how you're spending time on your device and allows you to set an app timer.

"Technology should help you with your life, not distract you from it. So we've been working hard to add key capabilities right into Android to help you achieve your desired balance with technology," reads a blog published on the company's website on May 8.

It's not just smartphones adding this feature. Instagram announced it would add "usage insights" to help people see just how much time they're spending on the popular photo sharing app.

Public good or good PR?

Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, works with people of all ages on problematic technology use. (CBC)

The new features coincide with recent criticism from several former employees now admitting they've created addictive technologies.

"Companies are responding to consumer demand and it has the added benefit of positive PR, but regardless of the motivation, if it helps people I'm in favour of it," said Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Pont works with people of all ages on problematic technology use and says she's pleased we're now talking about our phone usage. And while the new technology can be a helpful tool, ultimately the onus falls on the user.

"Monitoring behaviour is an important part of any behavioural change, but it's not the only thing. It really depends on how motivated the person is to make changes and whether they have the skills and a plan to accomplish the changes they wish to make," said Pont.

According to Pont, these steps can be helpful for decreasing phone usage:

  • Turn off notifications
  • Don't sleep with your phone by your bed
  • Keep your phone out of sight when you're trying to work or focus on something important
  • Decide how frequently you want to check your phone and allot time for that
  • Discuss with your loved ones and decide together when you want to have tech-free time

'People are being used by their phones'

James Somers (right) and friend Sabrina Charette (left) worry about their own phone usage: "I've been using my phone probably a little bit too much because I notice those negative effects on my life." (Jason Osler/CBC)

Finding a way out of the cycle of excessive phone use can be difficult, but James Somers wants to make the change.

"I've been using my phone probably a little bit too much because I notice those negative effects on my life. It's like 'wow, I just spent an hour and a half on Twitter!' and I probably shouldn't have done that," said Somers.

He's hopeful the new usage monitoring features will help.

"I think the problem is a lot of this stuff becomes automatic," said Somers. "I think if we start pointing out to people that they're being used by their phones rather than vice versa, things might start to change a little bit. But it does have a lot to do with your baseline personality."


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.


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