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May 13, 2018

Can Google really save us from wasting time, or are we on our own?

by John_A

Google’s annual I/O conference brought no shortage of the futuristic, whiz-bang ideas that we’ve come to expect from the company. We saw artificial intelligence that can call your salon for you, self-driving cars that can navigate in a snowstorm, and augmented-reality directions for Google Maps.

But Google also pitched a curveball in the form of Digital Wellbeing, a suite of features designed to help you use your phone less. A new dashboard will show you how much time you’re burning in different apps, and let you set limits on the biggest time wasters. Setting your phone face down will now activate a “shush” mode that turns off all notifications. At night, your phone can enter a “wind down” mode where everything appears black and white, coaxing you to set it down and sleep.

So is Google really interesting in liberating us from the digital shackles wrapped around our ankles, or is this a feel-good sham from the same company that wants to put notifications and cameras on our faces? Our staff was split, so we settled in for a good old-fashioned DT Debate.

Simon Hill, Associate Mobile Editor

Smartphones have enhanced our lives in many ways: They keep us in touch with people, they help us find places and things to do, and they enable us to capture special moments.

But you can have too much of a good thing, and there’s a growing realization that our smartphones can also detract from our lives.

It’s only by actively interacting with people that we boost our well-being.

We have been conditioned to answer to our phones. Every new ping or alert grabs our attention, because we think it might be something pleasing or important, even though it often isn’t. If you’ve ever had someone take out their phone and check an incoming alert mid-conversation with you at the dinner table, then you know how annoying it can be … but you’ve probably done it yourself.

Our smartphones hold such a treasure trove of potential interest that we can easily spend an hour idly browsing in and out of apps, many of which have been specifically designed to be addictive. When we use apps like Facebook the research suggests that passive consumption makes us feel worse, it’s only by actively interacting with people that we boost our well-being.

Some people even allow their phones to interrupt their sleep, checking them in the night or reading work emails just before bed when they can’t do anything about them anyway. There’s no doubt this is bad for your health. Apart from the increase in stress this creates, there’s also the potential impact of blue light from the screen. Few us of have jobs so important that we need to be instantly contactable 24/7, but that’s the situation smartphones have created.

Google’s Vice President of Product Management, Sameer Samat Google

Google’s new Digital Wellbeing features aren’t going to solve this issue in one fell swoop, because it also requires some awareness and willpower on our part. But what they will make it easier for us to reduce wasted time on our phones. As Google’s Vice President of Product Management, Sameer Samat, said, “People tell us a lot of the time they spend on their phones is really useful. But some of it they wish they’d spent on other things.”

When we looked into whether smartphone addiction exists, we found that awareness was one of the most important first steps in recognizing a problem. When people used the Moment app, which tracks time spent in apps and the number of unlocks you do every day, just like Google’s new Dashboard, it turned out that most were underestimating how long they spent on their phones and how many times they checked them. Being aware helped them reduce that wasted time.

The new App Timer enables you to make sure that 20 minutes of Twitter doesn’t turn into an hour.

Wind Down, which goes a step beyond blue-light filtering to turn your screen from color to grayscale, is a nice reminder that it’s bedtime. It will help many of us resist the powerful addictive pull of our phones, and get some shuteye instead of five more minutes of Reddit.

Shush is perfect for social situations: Just place your phone face down when you’re having dinner with friends, playing a game with your family, or working on something important, and the distraction is gone. We can decide when we want to check our phones, instead of answering to them all the time.

As the research mounts about the potential negative impact of smartphone use or overuse, it’s refreshing to see a big tech company address it directly like this. Making small changes to the way we use our smartphones allows us to ensure that they enhance rather than detract from our lives and these new tools will help.

Andy Boxall, Senior Writer

When Sameer Samat, Google’s VP of product management, said Android Dashboard’s Digital Wellbeing features will help us, “be fully present,” because it will silence those annoying, distracting notifications and ensure we’re not so beholden to the digital devil in our hand, that was the last straw for me. This had to be an elaborate gag, and Samat was actually a new member of the Impractical Jokers team, on stage to prank us all. This is Google, a company that has made, and continues to make, its fortune based on us staring at a screen with its ads and content on it. And it wants us to spend less time doing that? Yeah, right.

Here’s a secret: You can already turn your phone off, which will — newsflash — stop it from disturbing you entirely.

But wait, it’s OK, Google’s in on the joke. It knows that these features won’t make much of a difference to its bottom line, because they don’t work. Wait, say the well-intentioned but misguided souls who can’t see through Google’s ruse, it’ll help hopelessly addicted. No, it won’t. Because using and benefitting from any of these things requires self-control, and being unable to stop scrolling through Facebook when you should be sleeping, shows this is currently in short supply for many.

Why such cynicism? The vast majority of the features are already available in third-party apps such as Moment, which clearly haven’t had much of an effect on the hypnotized masses so far. Shush, which silences the phone when you flip it over, has been seen on phones like the HTC Droid Incredible since at least 2010. Sure, not all phones could do it then, and soon it will be preinstalled. But here’s a secret: You can already turn your phone off, which will — newsflash — stop it disturbing you entirely. Or if that’s too jarring, use Airplane Mode. It’s the same, but without the same degree of Band-Aid-ripping finality.

When was the last time you did that? If you’re not sure, then how will a notification saying you’ve been using Snapchat for an hour make any difference to your daily phone use? The passing of time isn’t a mystery. We’re all aware of how much time we spend procrastinating on our phones, yet we don’t do anything much about it, despite the tools already available.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

I was told, when I first scoffed at the digital wellbeing farce, that I was out of step with common consensus, and it has been widely well received. Of course it has. Everyone will agree it’s a good thing, and it truly has the potential to help tackle what (if I’m serious for a moment) is a genuine, growing issue, particularly among young people.

Except it won’t, because we don’t really want it to. Using a phone too much is the same as any other activity that affects our health and wellbeing. We all-too-often choose to worry about it another day.

Using and benefitting from any of these things requires self-control.

Google’s concern for your digital wellbeing is a cursory nod in the direction of those who enjoy telling others what they’re doing wrong. The don’t-eat-red-meat, cut-down-on-booze, careful-with-that-chocolate-cake crowd. The inclusion of Dashboard in Android P is a pacifier for those same people who moan about big companies not helping us break free of our phones to suck on. “We’re doing all we can,” Google will say, and in fact, it is. It’s us that’s the problem. We won’t take ownership of any possible addiction, because if we were genuinely concerned and motivated, we’d have done so already.

Samat’s wife had a third, and very effective method of curbing phone use. She locked it in a safe at the beginning of a holiday, and didn’t give it back until the end. How about trying that after work?

Simon Hill

Just because these features are already in third-party apps and other phones doesn’t mean they’re useless or don’t work. It’s an Android tradition to pick the best functions from manufacturer UIs and popular apps and bake them into the platform.

It’s not like they’re aiming to stop people using their phones, it’s about cutting down when you’re overdoing it, and the evidence suggests that awareness does make a difference. More than half of people who used Moment to track their activity for at least 30 days reduced their screen time by an average of 24 minutes.

Contrary to your belief, people don’t realize how much time they’re spending on their phones. Most of us lack your impeccable internal clock and it’s very easy to get lost in a game or app and not notice the time passing. There’s a difference between a general feeling that you’re using your phone too much and setting eyes on the cold, hard statistics.

Yes, it requires willpower and self-control to reduce your smartphone use, and not everyone will, but that’s not the point. The point is to help people who are concerned and do want to cut down.

If you’re going to reduce things to the old self-control argument, you may as well tell smokers to just quit, alcoholics to stop buying booze, fat people to stop eating, junkies to stop shooting up, or gamblers to stop betting. There’s no point in helping them is there? Because by your logic if they wanted to stop, they’d have done it by now.

The chance that these tools might help some people makes them a good thing, and it’s encouraging people to stop and think about it when they might not have done that before. It’s also not being enforced nanny-style – it’s optional. Decide for yourself.

Andy Boxall

I understand that realization of a problem is one of the first stages of recovery from addiction, and this kind of feature can prompt that. I also agree that people are oblivious to how long they are using their phones. However, as you said, Dashboard and all its tools are optional. All of those addictions you mention aren’t cured by half-measures, are they? They require major lifestyle changes.

If Google, and all the hand-wringers concerned for the future of society, were serious about this and really wanted lives to change, then make Dashboard and its warnings on by default. Force us to go in and turn all those alerts, vibrations, greyscale screens, and app shutouts off. That would get everyone’s attention, even those without my atomic internal clock.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Never happen, right? Uproar would ensue, and that’s because while we say it’s a good thing to cut down, actually doing so would be a pain. It’s much more comforting to know the features are simply there, and that if the mood took us, we could activate them and suddenly rejoice as we gain the time to smell the flowers, feel the sunshine, and listen to children laughing again.

On the whole, society has already decided about this, and that decision is one filled with apathy.

Opinion pieces represent the views of their individual authors, and not Digital Trends.

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