17th May 2019
If you’re an Apple product user, and especially if that’s an iPhone you’ve got in your pocket, you’ll no doubt have your weekly pop-up informing you of your ‘screen time’, we wonder which software consultants came up with that idea? It’s an interesting tact for a technology company to draw attention to how much time is being spent on their devices, and while Apple’s Screen Time software may present you the facts in a non-judgemental fashion, as a user, you can’t help but feel that when you receive that message each week you hope that your time spent with phone in hand has gone down.
That’s because we know that, while we’re in an age where we live out our day to day lives through screens, for both work and pleasure, we have this concept that it’s not good for us. Time spent in front of a screen is time not being active, affecting our health; time not paying attention to our surroundings, affecting our personal relationships; and there are also growing concerns on the effects of so much screen time on our mental health too.
Software such as Screen Time from Apple could then be seen as part of their corporate responsibility then, offering an easy way to let users know how much time is spent on their phones. By presenting the information alone, without guidelines on how long should be spent on the device, it becomes the user’s prerogative to interpret how much is too much and adjust their behaviour accordingly. It’s then an exercise in self-care to ensure that you decipher how the data applies to your life and change habits to meet your goals.
The Screen Time page in your phone is even more detailed, with a split of how much time has been spent on different tasks, but also comes with a Downtime function, which allows you to add an automatic limit to the amount a device can be used each day, and between what times. Limits can also be added to individual apps, and while these might largely be seen as parental controls, for those who lack the impulse control, it gives another way to opt in to ‘self-care’.
Apple, of course, isn’t the only tech brand bringing this sort of software to the table, as Google has also recently put a focus on its ‘Digital Wellbeing’ programme. Android Q devices now prioritise notifications, so that anything deemed less crucial is brought to attention, therefore stimulating less time on the phone, but the Digital Wellbeing concept goes one step further, asking users to opt-in to think more about their time spent on a device and change habits.
However, according to some critics, it’s not enough to simply arm consumers with the data alone. Tech critic Tristan Harris has applauded a move to looking at the wellbeing of users, but it won’t mean consumers will change their habits ‘magically’. “If the person is feeling the kind of anxiety and novelty-seeking craving in their lower nervous system that causes them to reach for their phone the second time this last 60 seconds … it’s not because they just need a seat belt or … [need] a limit that says, ‘don’t do that’”, he says, according to Business Insider. The problem is more about tech designed to exploit our attention span, he explains.
We’re now seeing these sort of applications making their way to our desktops and work life too, however, which changes the conversation surrounding our compulsion to use technology. Apple has been bringing more of its iPhone functionality to its Mac, including Screen Time, but now Microsoft is looking at ways of addressing life-work balance with the MyAnalytics tool as part of the Microsoft Office cloud system.
MyAnalytics allows you to track metrics of things such as how long you spend in meetings, and how long you spend on email. It holds you to account for time spent working outside of your working hours, as well as what it classifies as ‘quiet days’, where you’re actually able to switch off after the working day is done. As the writer of the Irish Times article puts it, ‘Think of it as a fitness tracker, but for your sanity.’ The software is also looking to introduce a ‘focus time’, designed to help you concentrate on projects without interruptions, whether that be co-workers or otherwise.
Focus is also a tool available in Android’s Digital Wellbeing arsenal, where when using the Focus mode, you’re able to block out the applications that you find distracting in that time, and in an age where devices become increasingly multi-function for work and play, this also means you can use it to block out work notifications when using the device in the evenings, according to TechCrunch.
In this way, it’s looking at not necessarily demonising the amount of time spent at the screen, but looking at ‘self-care’ in the guise of work-life balance and what deserves our attention at what time of the day. “We’re spending a lot of time on phones, and people tell us, sometimes they wish they spent more time on other things. We want to help people find balance and digital well-being. And yes, sometimes this means making it easier to put your device away entirely, and focus on the times that really matter,” said Stephanie Cuthbertson, senior director for Android. She also stated that research shows that 90 per cent of app timers stuck to their goals, and that overall there has been a 27 per cent reduction in nightly use of devices by those who use the Digital Wellbeing settings.
If the analytics provided by this information is enough to influence and change consumer behaviour, then it could be seen as slightly worrying that when you’re using an Apple device, this data is held and delivered by Apple alone – in fact, Apple has shut down third-party apps in their App Store which deliver the same function, though stating that this policy has been put in place for privacy reasons, however, according to the New York Times, app makers said it was because their insights could hurt Apple’s business.
The point is that as much as this software started off as an exercise in self-care, it has big applications in business for understanding how employees are performing tasks and where time is being misappropriated. Many workers may have been asked to perform exercises where they account for the time spent on different tasks and aspects of their job, which can allow their employers to look at how their workload is split and which areas consume the most time. Others may feel that they spend more time in meetings about doing work than actually doing work, and having some automatised analytics at hand gives you cold hard facts to look at and dissect.
Of course, this isn’t about creating a ‘nanny state’ workplace where employers monitor exactly how their workers are handling their workloads, but rather as a tool for reflection. If more time needs to be attributed to a task, a run-down of how much time and energy is given to everyday tasks, whether that’s a meeting, dealing with emails or whatever else, will show you where time can be redistributed elsewhere.
At the end of the day, this all results in a job being completed quicker, meaning fewer demands on employees outside of their working hours, whether you demand that from them or not, which allows more time for the ‘self-care’ that these software applications are designed to address.