There's no proof Android and iOS wellbeing tools reduce screen time

There’s no proof Android and iOS wellbeing tools reduce screen time

Mobile-Technology
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Getty Images / CHANDAN KHANNA / Contributor

Do you know how much time you spend on Facebook or your smartphone? You’re about to find out, as tech platforms leap onto the “wellness” trend with tools to track and reduce our screen time, despite a lack of scientific evidence that doing so will benefit your mental health.

“It’s really important for people who use Instagram and Facebook that the time they spend with us is time well spent,” Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s product director of Well-Being, told reporters on a conference call after it announced the new tools. “There may be some trade-off with other metrics for the company and that’s a trade-off we’re willing to live with, because in the longer term we think this is important to the community and we’re willing to invest in it.”

With that in mind – or perhaps in search of some positive headlines – Facebook will track how much time users spend on the social network and Instagram, warning when you hit a set limit, with Apple and Google taking such wellness tools even further in the next versions of their mobile operating systems.

So what do psychologists think? We spoke to three psychology researchers to assess the new features, which were were overwhelmingly welcomed, even if their impact on health was questioned. Look at screen time: there’s no research to suggest there’s a good, or bad, amount of time to stare at any app or device. “I think many people are actually quite interested in how they spend their time,” says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at LSE. “It’ll help people reflect. If the feedback is way out of line with what people thought, it’ll invite them to change their behaviour. It’s helpful. Is it going to improve the wellbeing of the country in a significant way? I doubt it.”

Facebook and Instagram will chart such data inside Settings. The Android Pie update will have a dashboard displaying time spent in each app, while Apple’s iOS 12 will send that data out in a weekly report.

Such data is akin to nutritional breakdowns on food packaging – reading how many calories are in that yogurt won’t directly make you lose weight, but it could help you make better choices. “Providing people information, if it’s in a usable format, really does help people fit things into their lives,” says Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “And people are really bad at estimating how much time they spend using different types of technology. They’re wrong in both directions.”

Keeping with the nutrition analogy, the impact of time spent staring at a device depends on the person. “I often use the analogy about the effects of eating a gram of sugar,” says Amy Orben, an experimental psychology researcher at the University of Oxford. “If you just finished the Tour de France, it’s fine to eat it but if you’re diabetic it could be harmful. Activity on social media or apps will have different effects on different people.”

And that right there is one of the most common misconceptions in debates around the much-maligned screen-time. It’s what we do on our devices that it most important, not how long we do it for. “When we just use it to look at other people’s posts, that has been shown to have the most negative effects,” Orben says. “Active use and talking to your friends has not been shown to have any negative effects, but the evidence is still very mixed.” That suggests tweaks to encourage genuine interaction and discourage constant scrolling, something Instagram has done by telling users they’re “all caught up” on posts, could be more useful than blanket time limits.

Want a screen time diet? Facebook users can ask to get a notification when they’ve spent a certain amount of time on the social network or Instagram, while Android’s App Timer will grey out an app after a set amount of time, to discourage its use. “I can’t imagine people using that,” says Livingstone. “People will be irritated straight off.”

Nagging notifications are also getting attention, with Facebook making it easier to set what notifications you get. Apple will track how many notifications are sent by apps, letting you know which you may like to tell to shut up, as well as better grouping notifications and showing them “quietly”. Android already groups notifications but its dashboard will highlight how many you get from each app. “There’s some evidence that indicates that stopping notifications works, in terms of productivity and general satisfaction with your day,” says Przybylski. “That’s where the evidence is the strongest, and even then it’s pretty preliminary.”

And then there’s Do Not Disturb. Apple iOS 12 will include a morning wake-up screen to ease users into the day. Android 9 is getting “Shush”, which shifts a phone into Do Not Disturb mode when placed face down, and “Wind Down”, which flips the display to greyscale before bedtime to remind you to switch off.

“Does that work?” Przybylski laughs. “There’s no research that shows that making a screen grayscale does anything. And the research about blue light and sleep is not very well done. If you were to assume technology is special, like a drug, what you have is these companies providing medical treatments in a weird way that have no empirical validation to them.”

And that’s the key complaint. While these “time well spent” tools are generically welcome, the researchers note there’s no evidence base they’ll do anything. Such questions are answerable, says Przybylski, but for that academics need access to tech platforms’ datasets. “The technology companies have access to data that academic researchers don’t. It’s a massive asymmetry,” he says. “Unless the data is open and shareable and anonymised, or there are democratic collaborations that enable a researcher to actually say a feature doesn’t work, then we’re not going to know [if these tools help], and it’ll just be a bunch of marketing.”

And is this sudden wellness push just marketing at a time when positive PR is in short supply for Big Tech? Why are the tech giants doing this — and all at the same time? Przybylski believes it’s a genuine response to growing criticism, from social scientists, overwrought digital detox books, and even their own alumni, who have spoken out about addictive techniques used by developers. “They actually do, on a very visceral level, want their users to have positive experiences with their products,” Przybylski says.

But it’s also an issue of feature parity — if one platform has such tools, the others will scramble to keep up. “Look at the differences,” says Przybylski. “Apple is kind of a unified vision of how they see the ecosystem working, and then the Google one is a bit thrown together from a bunch of things they were working on. And Facebook, they’re sticking their toe in the water.”

It’s a start, at least, and a welcome one. But don’t forget that the companies in question have long had the ability to share this data with users, and could share much more. “Presumably they are making some quite fine calculations about how to balance people’s growing distrust and concern about social media… against losing revenue,” says Livingstone. “They will be able to say to advertisers, what you’re getting here is quality time from someone who’s not pissed off or overtired at the app, and that quality time is worth more. They can sell it as our well-being if they like, but let’s not be naive.”

(Excerpt) Read more Here | 2018-08-20 11:01:50

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