By Cindy Dampier
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Getting those weekly “Screen Time” reports, may be causing you some distress. The good news is that there are solutions to curb the time glued to your smartphone.
Need a new game to keep people amused at the office? Try this: Ask your co-workers to show you their screen time.
Ever since Apple rolled out the iOS 12 operating system a few months ago, the new Screen Time app has been tracking time spent with iPhones, specifically, whenever the screen is on.
The app lurks quietly in the background, taking note of those scrolls through Instagram that soothe your train commute. Your late-night Twitter habit and the text fight you had with your sister? Add those to the damning total.
At week’s end, voila, the tiny computer does what computers do: It spits out data about your phone use for the week, and sends a message. “Your screen time was up 11 percent last week.” And then … the number: Six hours per day? Or 45 minutes? Virtue, or digital degeneracy?
You lean into the delicate glow of the screen, mouth gaping slightly. Did you see that right? An average of six hours per day? That’s more than a 40-hour workweek.
Want to find out your girlfriend’s number? Your boss’s number? You bet you do.
Though screen-time trackers have been around for a while (in the form of apps like Moment) and though Google also has a tracker, Digital Wellness, it’s Apple that has moved the needle, just by including Screen Time as part of its iOS 12, which rolled out this fall, and sending those little notifications.
While we were worrying about screen time for kids (and you can use these apps to track your child’s use too), guess what? We were all staring at the phone much more than we thought we were.
Maybe we were all texting our significant others to tell them how worried we are about the kids’ screen time. For six hours a week. I mean, child rearing is heavy stuff.
For many people, the numbers have been a little bit of a shock.
“I’m on it all the time,” says Larry Rosen, whose number hovers in the four- to five-hour range. “I’m staggered by how much I use it.”
Rosen understands his phone use much better than most of the rest of us because he’s a well-known research psychologist and expert on the “psychology of technology.”
He has been studying smartphone-use trackers for the last three years with apps that examine the habits of college students. His research subjects track their usage and send him weekly reports or screen shots of the report on their phones. Then, when the study is finished, he asks them whether their usage was more or less than expected.
“The answer,” he says, “is always more. And then we ask, ‘Did you do anything about it?’ and the answer is always ‘Nope.’ They know they shouldn’t do it, but they don’t want to change it.”
Why? “Because they can’t see anything that they are doing with the phones that they’d want to give up or reduce.”
Rosen gets it, he’s an admitted news junkie, constantly checking the headlines on his phone. And if you were startled by your Screen Time notification, you probably went looking right away to see which apps you spent time on. (There’s a handy list in the app, if you tap to expand the graph at the top.)
People scrutinize the time-sucking apps mostly in the name of self-justification, since one of the first questions that popped up when the notifications started arriving was “Is it counting my podcast/music/navigation app time?”
The answer is a qualified yes, the ticker is running whenever the screen is on, so if you have an app that keeps the screen locked on (like the recipes app I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner), that counts, even if you left the kitchen, had Thanksgiving dinner and then returned to find your phone still showing those recipes. Hours of driving with Waze running will also up your total.
But the grand total hours spent, Rosen says, might not really be the big problem. Among his research subjects, he has seen total phone use creep higher year by year. But the stat that shot up in the last study was check-ins, or how often the subjects picked up the phone or touched it to check something.
In the first year, subjects checked their phones an average of 56 times per day, and had screen time of around 220 minutes. By year three, subjects logged screen time of around 277 minutes, but checked their phones an average of 77 times per day. (Screen Time will also show you your check-in number, or pickups.) “It’s not necessarily the increase in the amount of time, it’s the rapid increase in the number of times they check in. That’s what they’re doing, they’re checking in, but it’s for about 3 2/3 minutes, and then they are off for only about 10 minutes at the most. And the interesting thing is we know why.”
Research has shown that “what’s driving it is anxiety, and it’s a particular kind of anxiety some people call nomophobia but we call technological dependency.”
Nomophobia is also known as fear of missing out. That’s right: FOMO. Rosen explains it like this: “As soon as you check in, chemicals start to build in your brain,” including the stress hormone, cortisol. “When those get to a sufficient level to create external distress, that’s the key that forces you to go, ‘Oh, I better check in.”
These are arousal chemicals, he points out, not the feel-good chemical dopamine. So, while we might get a hit of pleasure from seeing a fun message from a friend on our phone screen, the increase in check-ins doesn’t seem to be driven by addiction-style pleasure seeking. Instead, it’s driven by anxiety. Which makes you wonder about the skyrocketing rates of anxiety: What if we all had a tiny device that we carried with us everywhere and considered essential to daily life, that was also an anxiety-producing machine?
The intense personalization of smartphones is an issue as well, since it cues into another brain function that makes check-ins feel mandatory. Our brains prioritize some stimuli more than others, when someone calls your name, for instance, your brain overrides other stimuli to alert you.
Smartphones, essentially, are always calling your name, and social media plays a big part in that. Social media introduces the idea that, at any moment, someone could be talking to you, or about you. Someone you know may have just said something and later might ask you, “Did you see my tweet?” Better check in.
“You are,” Rosen says, “compelled to do it.”
Knowing this, and getting those weekly Screen Time reports, may have caused you some distress. There are solutions to curb your screen time, Rosen says. Screen Time includes features that allow you to choose time limits on the use of certain apps, though you can also choose to override them. Other apps, such as Onward, are considered more hardcore, you can lock yourself out of nonessential apps once a time limit is reached, and you will be unable to access them until the next day. Rosen suggests a few more basic fixes:
First, turn off all notifications, except essentials like calls or messages from your family.
Bury your social media apps inside folders on the last page of the home screen, so that it takes several clicks to retrieve them.
Don’t save your password in social media apps or apps you spend too much time on, and close the app each time you leave it, so that you have to log in each time, again, this puts up an incremental roadblock.