Last year, tech companies couldn’t get enough of letting you use their products less.
Executives at Apple and Google unveiled on-device features to help people monitor and restrict how much time they spent on their phones. Facebook and Instagram, two of the biggest time sucks on the planet, also rolled out time spent notifications and the ability to snooze their apps — new features meant to nudge people to scroll through their apps a little less mindlessly.
These companies all became fluent in the language of “time well spent,” a movement to design technology that respects users’ time and doesn’t exploit their vulnerabilities. Since the movement sprang up nearly seven years ago, it has invoked mass introspection and an ongoing debate over technology use, which people blame for a swath of societal ills including depression and suicide, diminished attention spans, and decreased productivity.
But a year after Big Tech rolled out their time-well-spent features, it doesn’t seem like they’re working: The time we spend on our devices just keeps increasing.
Fortunately, the problem might not be that bad in the first place. Though correlations exist, there’s no causal link between digital media usage and the myriad problems some speculate it causes.
“Every time new tech comes out, there’s a moral panic that this is going to melt our brains and destroy society,” Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, told Recode. “In almost every case, we sort of look back at these things and laugh.”
What “time well spent” has done is spurred a whole cottage industry to help people “digitally detox,” and it’s being led in part by the big tech companies responsible for — and that benefit from — our reliance on tech in the first place. As Quartz writer Simone Stolzoff put it, “‘Time well spent’ is having its Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment. What began as a social movement has become a marketing strategy.”
Politicians are also jumping on the dogpile. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has proposed a bill to reduce what some call social media addiction by banning infinite scrolling and autoplay and by automatically limiting users to spending a maximum of 30 minutes a day on each platform. The bill currently has no cosponsors and is unlikely to go to a vote, but does demonstrate that the topic is on lawmakers’ radar.
These efforts, however, have yet to dent our insatiable need for tech.
The data on device usage
American adults spent about 3 hours and 30 minutes a day using the mobile internet in 2019, an increase of about 20 minutes from a year earlier, according to measurement company Zenith. The firm expects that time to grow to over four hours in 2021. (Top smartphone users currently spend 4 hours and 30 minutes per day on those devices, according to productivity software company RescueTime, which estimates average phone usage to be 3 hours and 15 minutes per day).
We’re spending more time online because pastimes like socializing that used to happen offline are shifting online, and we’re generally ceding more of our days to digital activities.
The overall time Americans spend on various media is expected to grow to nearly 11 hours per day this year, after accounting for declines in time spent with other media like TV and newspapers that are increasingly moving online, according to Zenith. Mobile internet use is responsible for the entirety of that growth.
Nearly a third of Americans said they are online “almost constantly” in 2019, a statistic that has risen substantially across age groups since the study was conducted the year before.
Not all our online activities are on the uptick, however.
Online measurement company SimilarWeb has found that time spent with some of the most popular social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, has declined in the wake of “time well spent” efforts — though the decline could instead reflect the waning relevance of those social media behemoths. At least for now, the average amount of time on those apps is still near historic highs:
Since overall time spent online is going up, the data suggests we’re just finding other places online to spend our time, like with newer social media like TikTok or with online video games.
Some have argued that sheer time spent isn’t important psychologically, but rather it’s what we’re doing with that time online. And what we’re doing is very fragmented.
Rather than use our devices continually, we tend to check them throughout the day. On average, people open their phones 58 times a day (and 30 of those times are during the workday), according to RescueTime. Most of those phone sessions are under two minutes.
Even on our phones, we don’t stick to one thing. A recent study published in the journal Human-Computer Interaction found that people switched on average from one screen activity to another every 20 seconds.
And what’s the result of all these hours of fragmented activity? Just one in 10 people RescueTime surveyed said they felt in control of how they spend their day.
What to do with our growing smartphone usage
It’s tough to separate finger-wagging judgments about tech from valid concerns about how tech could be degrading our lives. But the perception, at least, that tech is harming our lives seems to be very real.
Numerous articles instruct people on how to put down their phones. And richer Americans — including the people making the technology in the first place — are desperately trying to find ways to have their kids spend less time with screens.
MIT’s Zuckerman suggests building better “pro-civic social media,” since he thinks it’s already clear we’re going to spend lots of our time online anyway.
“I am deeply worried about the effects of the internet on democracy. On the flip side, I was deeply worried about democracy before everyone was using the internet,” he said. “What we probably have to be doing is building social media that’s good for us as a democracy.”
This social media would emphasize the best aspects of social media and would better defend against scourges like content that promotes political polarization and misinformation. He gave the example of gell.com, which uses experts to outline arguments for and against major social issues, and then encourages user participation to further develop and challenge the ideas.
Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, thinks we’re overusing the language of addiction when it comes to technology usage. If we really want to limit our technology usage, he told Recode, solutions are close at hand.
“We want to think that we’re getting addicted because an addiction involves a pusher, a dealer — someone’s doing it. Whereas when we call it what it really is, which is distraction — now in the US, we don’t like to face that fact — that means we have to do something that’s no fun,” Eyal said.
Instead of blaming tech companies, he asks people, “Have you tried to turn off notifications, for God’s sake? Have you planned your day so that you don’t have all this white space where you’re free to check your phone all the time?”
For those who are addicted — a percentage he says is probably in line with the portions of the population that are addicted to anything else, like alcohol or gambling — he thinks tech companies should notify users that they’re in the top percentiles of usership and offer them resources, such as software tools and professional assistance (and his book).
In the meantime, the time we spend on our digital devices will continue to increase, and there’s still a need for conclusive research about whether that actually matters. Perhaps while we wait for clarity, we can turn off our notifications about how much time we spend on our phones.