The Paradox of Apple’s New “Screen Time” Feature

Digital detox is en vogue, but can we really trust the companies that make these addictive products to help us use their products less?

(Image via NPR, by Ryan Johnson)

An increasingly popular trend among tech companies lately is introducing features that allow users to manage their time on the companies’ products. Facebook and Instagram are implementing the feature, and Apple introduced the feature in the recently-released iOS 12.

We’re just now catching up to the fact that our screens can be disruptive in everyday life, and tech companies have responded to this by giving us tools to manage our screen time, but here’s a question: Why do we trust the companies that make these products to help us use their products less?

Cellphone addiction often gets compared to cigarette addiction, so let me ask you this: Would you trust Marlboro to help you smoke less? Tobacco companies are still arguing that smoking cigarettes do not increase cancer risk, even though it’s now scientific consensus. Some even think smoking reduces the risk of cancer.

Morals and ethics aside, this makes a lot of sense, on the part of tobacco companies. Why would a business voluntarily do anything that could lead to consumers consuming their product less? People say “less is more”, but that’s not the case when the crux of a business is addiction.

Some tobacco companies do provide resources about quitting smoking — a quick peak at Marlboro’s website shows that there’s a link to quitassist.com, although it’s in a small font at the footer of the page. Companies do this because they have to, at the very least, pretend to be socially-conscious.

The history of tobacco companies as it relates to public concerns of cigarette addiction will prove to be instructive for tech companies responding to concerns of cellphone addiction. We are currently amidst this moment. It’s not hard to picture an alternate future where tech companies disregard the public concern of screen addiction and get accused of destroying human connection.

It’s smart for companies like Apple and Facebook to do what they’re doing. It’s a performative gesture that says “We hear your concerns.” And sooner or later, those same companies will find a way to sell you something to help you use your phone less, the same way tobacco companies sell you nicotine gum to help you stop smoking.

It’s already starting to happen. Savvy companies are taking note of this burgeoning market and already rushing to fill a hole in this market before the Apples of the world take it over. “Dumbphones” are a thing, now. The more smaller companies try to capitalize on this market, the sooner the big companies will move into it themselves.

Again, there are already signs of this. One of the selling points of the newer iterations of the Apple Watch is that it no longer requires an iPhone, meaning you can get some digital detox, for several hundred dollars. Voice-enabled smart speakers like the Google Home and Apple HomePod are also indications of this shift, selling themselves as a way to retain the conveniences of a smartphone, without a screen.

This is smart business on the part of these companies. They cannot change the fact that more and more of us are realizing a desire for less screen time, so rather than lose you to a company selling a product that’ll help you with that, they sell you products. They’re going to get them somewhere, so it might as well be from us. It’s like an arms dealer selling weapons to both sides of a war.

This is not to say that companies are outright lying about their products’ ability to help you spend less time with screens. But really examine these products — the new “Screen Time” feature in particular — and you’ll realize that in the fight against digital detox, these are, at most, half-measures.

“Screen Time” lets you set time limits for apps, which is the biggest roadblock you can give yourself, except that it can be bypassed by simply entering in a password, so besides having somebody else set the password for you, it’s really more of a bump in the road than a full-on roadblock.

If you’re using the feature, it’s somewhat of an indicator that you have difficulty with exercising the self-control needed to just put down your phone, which means a password that you made yourself likely isn’t going to stop you, rendering the feature, ultimately, useless. It only presents the appearance that it’s helping you use your iPhone less.

That’s all that’s required of Apple at the moment. Once digital detoxing becomes as popular as, let’s say, yoga, Apple will begin pushing products that don’t require your hands and eyes. It’ll sound something like this: Our newest x will have y feature, allowing you to enjoy benefit a, b, and c without taking you away from the most important thing in your life: your family and friends.

Apple is especially prone to doing this because it’s business model is different from Facebook. Whereas Facebook is an advertising-based, attention-centric business, Apple is a physical goods business that more resembles traditional businesses, which is to say that the amount of time you spend with the device becomes a secondary, or even tertiary, concern immediately after you buy it.

This is also why Apple can push so hard against privacy — one of the biggest concerns of the modern age. Apple does not make its money by gathering data on you and monetizing that data. Because of this, Apple can position itself in the market as the company who will best fulfill your need for privacy. This will come to be the case with digital detox.

It may seem contradictory to question whether we should trust tech companies like Apple to help us use their products less, and then say that Apple doesn’t make its money by monetizing your attention. If Apple’s bottom-line isn’t directly affected by us using our phones less, perhaps their attempt to help us take time away from screens is genuine?

This is the paradox. By encouraging you to digital detox with features like “Screen Time”, Apple is setting the stage for it to sell you things in the future to help you do that. By selling you on the concept of digital detox today, Apple will be able to sell you digital detox in the future. Using Apple devices less will come to put money in Apple’s pocket. For Apple, less really will be more.

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I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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