There’s mounting evidence to suggest that heavy technology use can be damaging to mental health. 

A study by Duke University found that this correlates with attention and behavioural problems in young people. Meanwhile, a 2017 survey by the Royal Society for Public Health found that young Brits believe social media channels like Facebook and Instagram have significant detrimental effects on their wellbeing.

It is this kind of research that is the motivation behind the so-called ‘Time Well Spent’ movement – an initiative spearheaded by former Google employee, Tristan Harris. It is based on the belief that technology platforms (and our dependency on them) are eroding key pillars of our society, including social relationships and democracy.

Interestingly, while companies like Facebook and Google make money from digital attention, a number of them have recently started to sit up and take notice of the issue. But, is their intention as well-meaning as it seems, or just a clever ploy to avoid backlash over the topic?

Here’s more on ‘Time Well Spent’ and how it’s affecting both users and the tech industry.

Using tech mindfully

Now more than ever, tech companies are intent on telling us exactly how much time we’re spending on our smartphones. Apple’s new iOS 12 update will include ‘Activity Reports’ – a feature that informs users of key facts like how much time is spent in each app, how many notifications are received, and how often the device is picked up.

With the next version of its operating system, Android P, Google is also following suit. As well as telling users how long they engage with various apps, Google is also working with developers to discover what actually constitutes “meaningful engagement”.

In theory, this means users will be given actionable guidance on how to use apps mindfully, rather than just shallow data that breaks down time in app. Other parts of Android P are designed to make switching off even easier, such as the ‘Shush’ and ‘Wind down’ features.

To a large extent, it makes sense for both Google and Apple to integrate these features directly into smartphone software. Essentially, smartphones are investments, and so it makes sense for brands to foster long-term usage in this way. Informative and user-focused features will help to remind people of the things they value – such as mental focus and relaxation. As a result, the technology becomes something that can increase productivity and well-being in users rather than damage it.

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Addressing social media addiction

While digital technology as a whole has been blamed for decreasing attention spans and dwindling relationships – it is social media channels that have generated the biggest backlash.

Of course, in light of the Cambridge Analytics scandal and the ‘fake news’ debacle – Facebook has given users more reasons to want to press delete in recent times. However, it is hard to dismiss the negative effects social media usage can have. I cited just one study earlier, but countless others suggest that social media channels can contribute to increased stress, low moods, and lack of sleep.

Now, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have introduced features to tell users exactly how much time they spend on their apps. Facebook wants to ensure that users’ time is “well spent”, launching a tool that will notify users once they’ve been on the app for a certain amount of time. Instagram is set to introduce a similar feature, as well as notifying users when they’re ‘all caught up’ with recent posts.

Finally, YouTube has introduced a feature to curb binge watching, now allowing users to set a timer within the YouTube app to alert them to take a break.

What’s in it for them?

Social media platforms make money from the time users spend interacting with ads, so why would they want to reduce this?

On the surface, it does appear to be an honest attempt to combat the negative effects of social media overuse. Facebook admits that engagement might decline in the short-term, but rise in the long-term as people find their time on the platform more meaningful. Plus, with time and attention more valuable than ever, it could also force brands to create better and more engaging content, increasing the overall quality of ad campaigns.

From another perspective, sceptics might question Facebook’s intentions, perhaps suggesting that the platform is co-opting the ‘Time Well Spent’ mantra for its own gain. In other words, that it is merely a ploy to ease recent backlash, and that highlighting a few box-checking features doesn’t do much to actually reverse the now ingrained behaviour of its two billion users.

What’s more, you could even suggest that Facebook’s actions actually re-frame the issue of digital addiction to place blame on users. In other words, it’s how people use the platform – not the platform itself.

There’s also the fact that Facebook will benefit from how Time Management will change behaviour to become more ‘meaningful’. This also highlights why it changed its News Feed to prioritise friends and family over brands and publishers.

Facebook recognises that passive behaviour, i.e. endless scrolling, is not good for the platform. In contrast, engagement is a valuable metric, and one that makes sense for it to strive for. By framing this in the context of ‘Time Well Spent’ – it paints engagement as being beneficial and valuable for users too.

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In conclusion…

The intention of tech companies aside, one questions remains – will these time management features even work?

They might inform users, but they certainly cannot guarantee change.

Interestingly, social media agency Social Chain highlights other reasons that time spent could end up being a negative rather than a positive. It suggests that it could become the latest vanity metric for brands – used to determine ‘success’ much like views or follower counts.

Even worse is the idea that time spent could become an aspiration or goal for users rather than a note of caution, potentially leading to the feature doing more harm than good for real tech addicts.

What is certainly true is that it will be up to users to harness this new kind of information however they see fit. And just like alcohol or junk food, to choose to heed the warnings or give into temptation regardless.

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