This weekend, former Apple engineer and consumer gadget legend Tony Fadell penned an op-ed for Wired. In it, he argued that smartphone manufacturers need to do a better job of educating users about how often they use their mobile phones, and the resulting dangers that overuse might bring about.
Take healthy eating as an analogy: we have advice from scientists and nutritionists on how much protein and carbohydrate we should include in our diet; we have standardised scales to measure our weight against; and we have norms for how much we should exercise.
But when it comes to digital “nourishment”, we don’t know what a “vegetable”, a “protein” or a “fat” is. What is “overweight” or “underweight”? What does a healthy, moderate digital life look like? I think that manufacturers and app developers need to take on this responsibility, before government regulators decide to step in – as with nutritional labelling. Interestingly, we already have digital-detox clinics in the US. I have friends who have sent their children to them. But we need basic tools to help us before it comes to that.
Plenty of studies have shown that too much screen time and internet/smartphone addiction can be damaging to our health, both physically and psychologically. And while there are other players involved in our growing dependence on our phones (yes, I’m talking to you, Facebook), the folks who actually build those screens have ample opportunity to make users more aware of their usage.
In his article, Fadell brings up ways that companies like Apple could build out features for this:
You should be able to see exactly how you spend your time and, if you wish, moderate your behaviour accordingly. We need a “scale” for our digital weight, like we have for our physical weight. Our digital consumption data could look like a calendar with our historical activity. It should be itemised like a credit-card bill, so people can easily see how much time they spend each day on email, for example, or scrolling through posts. Imagine it’s like a health app which tracks metrics such as step count, heart rate and sleep quality.
With this usage information, people could then set their own targets – like they might have a goal for steps to walk each day. Apple could also let users set their device to a “listen-only” or “read-only” mode, without having to crawl through a settings menu, so that you can enjoy reading an e-book without a constant buzz of notifications.
9to5Mac brought up a Bloomberg piece from February that not only shows Apple’s capability to build out this feature, but their willingness to do so for young people, with a reported new feature that would let parents see how much time their kids are staring at their screens.
Unlike Facebook, which has tweaked its algorithm to prioritize meaningful connection over time spent on the platform, Apple’s revenue is not dependent on how much you use your phone. So, maybe we’ll see a digital health feature added to Apple products in the future.