Big Tech likes to disrupt. But when it comes to papering over the problems it’s created, it’s happy taking a page out of a well-worn corporate playbook.
Over the last month, Google, Apple, and, most recently, Facebook and Instagram, have all unveiled features intended to give people a better understanding of and control over how they use their phones.
The features are part of the “Time Well Spent” movement, a phrase popularized in 2017 meant to address concerns about screen addiction, particularly for adolescent development. The idea of the movement, and now its Big Tech-endorsed manifestations, is that through tools to understand and manage use, people can fight addiction and have a sense that the time sucked into the vortex of our smartphones is “well spent.”
Sounds great, right? The first step to correcting a behavior is through understanding it, after all. But there’s reason to be skeptical of Facebook’s Time Management, Apple’s Screen Time, and Google’s Digital Wellbeing, too.
They’re a solution offered by the people that created the problem in the first place. Why should we embrace an answer presented by organizations for whom a true solution to smart phone addiction — I.E. not using smartphones at all — would put them out of business?
We should also be wary because these initiatives look similar to the efforts to combat addiction enacted by Big Tobacco, Big Food, and other industries that create addictive products — namely, light cigarettes and “fat free” food. That similarity, and the impulse to self-police before government regulators step in, links industries that history has deemed harmful, with Big Tech — an industry that likes to think of itself as a global do-gooder. That’s an association we can learn from in order to better judge the tech industry’s volunteered solutions to the problems of its own making.
What Time Well Spent features really do is re-frame the screen addiction issue in a way that benefits tech companies, and does not necessarily help tech users. They place the blame for screen addiction on the way people use products, shifting accountability off of the products themselves. It’s not us, it’s you, the initiatives seem to say.
Now where have we heard that before…
All aboard the bandwagon
It began as a brewing PR storm. In the summer of 2017, former Google employee Tristan Harris started making the media rounds, arguing for the need for a new ethics in technology design: Time Well Spent. He founded his own company called Humane Tech, did a popular Ted Talk, participated in several media features, and spread the gospel about what he was calling a “digital attention crisis”: the intentional creation of addictive products by Google, Facebook, and other tech companies.
Then, in the fall, a few impactful articles and studies about the negative effects that smartphones were having on childhood development landed. Not only were smartphones perhaps intentionally addictive, but they were having impacts beyond just adults feeling like they were wasting time: they were making children rampantly more depressed, under-developed, and, ironically, anti-social.
Next, in early 2018, the problem went mainstream. Apple shareholders penned a letter to the company asking it to address screen-time addiction. The New York Times published a sweeping take about anxiety-inducing “red dot” notifications. And Tristan Harris reappeared on TV to criticize Facebook directly, calling it a “living, breathing crime scene” — and advocate for his solution, time well spent.
The narrative that tech companies weren’t just creating products to “help people” was starting to break through. And, amidst revelations about Russian election meddling and companies like Cambridge Analytica sucking millions’ of peoples’ data, Facebook in particular — but the tech industry as a whole — faced a torrent of negative public opinion, including calls to #DeleteFacebook and create space in our lives away from technology.
Facebook was the first to react with an attempt to turn its image around through the time well spent credo. Through a Facebook post from Mark Zuckerberg, it announced plans to re-focus Facebook products on “meaningful” interactions. It in fact directly co-opted the ‘Time Well Spent’ motto for itself, in name as well as in intention.
“Facebook has always been about personal connections,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “By focusing on bringing people closer together — whether it’s with family and friends, or around important moments in the world — we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent.”
Next, Instagram confirmed that it was working on some Time Well Spent features, mostly focused on an activity dashboard to see how much you use the app.
We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional.
— Kevin S. (@kevin) May 16, 2018
Then, during developer conference season, Google and then Apple both unveiled new tools to both understand and manage time spent on iPhone and Android. Google’s “digital wellbeing” and Apple’s “screen time” both offer an activity dashboard, as well as app time limits and more robust do not disturb modes.
Finally, Facebook announced on August 1 that it would roll out a suite of tools called “Time Management” as an extension of its time well spent directive. With Time Management, Facebook and Instagram users can see how much time they’re spending in the apps per week (though not week over week), can mute notifications for up to eight hours at a time, and can set notifications to pop up when they’ve reached the amount of time they decide they want to spend in the app.
Facebook representative Gretchen Sloan said that Facebook does not have a formal relationship with Harris’ Center for Humane Technology, but acknowledges the connection as an industry movement.
“We are incredibly invested in ensuring people have a healthy relationship with technology, so I think we all share a similar goal,” Sloan said.
People have already started using the features, some aghast at how much they pick up their phones, some — like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — embracing the feature.
“They want you to like your device, they want you to be in a long term relationship with it,” Nir Eyal, a behavioral design expert, said. “The natural market response is we can make this better.”
Same song, different tune
Tell me if this sounds familiar. Over the course of several years, health officials begin warning the public about the potential dangers of a product. Next, lawmakers start bringing up the issue in Congress. Then, the industries unveil a solution to the burgeoning problem. See, they say, we can change the product to address these “concerns.” Not to worry! We care about our customers!
Even with not strictly addictive products, there is a long history of industries changing their products or behavior when the public gets wind of a problem. Sometimes, this genuinely benefits consumers and makes products safer or better.
But other times, it is a stopgap measure, implemented to maintain profits and avoid external consequences like regulation, that doesn’t actually improve the underlying problem, and can even make it worse.
The most nefarious example of this tactic is light cigarettes. In the 1960’s cigarette companies decided to go on the offensive in response to reports that cigarettes caused cancer. They came out with “light” cigarettes, which lowered the amount of cancer-causing tar — along with the nicotine content. But smokers who opted for light cigarettes just ended up smoking more to compensate for the lowered hit of tobacco. Or, users would cover filtering holes, so they’d end up sucking more (just different) toxic chemicals into their lungs.
Light cigarettes were an attempt to supposedly empower smokers to use the product more healthfully. That appeased concerns in the short term, but didn’t actually stop addiction or its consequences. Congress ultimately banned light cigarettes in 2010.
University of Michigan Professor Ken Warner has studied the Big Tobacco playbook, and how Big Food borrowed from it when it faced a health PR crisis of its own.
Big Food followed Big Tobacco’s lead in the 1980s once health experts and then lawmakers started realizing that red blooded Americans were getting red blooded heart disease thanks to all the fatty foods they were eating. Voila, the food industry unveiled “low fat,” “fat free,” and sugar free products. But now, studies show that the popular diet foods of the ’80s and ’90s actually caused weight gain by both making people eat more, and by introducing calorie-free, artificial ingredients that actually mess with the way we digest food, and can even cause cancer.
Light cigarettes and diet food are part of a legacy of preemptive self-regulating, according to Warner. That includes the auto industry with seatbelts, the health industry with insurance premiums, and most recently, with Juul’s attempt to discourage youth vaping.
“There are lots of examples like this of industries trying to voluntarily either regulate themselves or discourage abusive use of their products,” Warner said. “Frequently, there’s reason to be skeptical.”
This pattern does not necessarily work against consumers. But we shouldn’t forget the history of light cigarettes on one hand, and seatbelts on the other, before we embrace Time Well Spent.
Light cigarettes, diet food, and seatbelts have some suspect similarities, but also crucial differences, with tech companies’ Time Well Spent features.
First, these new features and products are all presented by the companies that created the societal problem. In these instances, being skeptical with regard to the source of the solution is important, because the source determines the motivations behind the creation of that solution — and that’s where things get a little trickier.
One simple and overarching motivation for all of these products, is the need to maintain profits. Marlboro, Ford, and certainly Facebook, all have an interest in keeping their customers using their products — even if that means encouraging people, for some time, to use their products less.
“Their motivation is in a backwards kind of way to maintain profit by trying to avoid more strict regulation or intervention by others,” Dr. Warner said. “They may take a short term hit on their bottom line, in order to maintain long-term customer retention.”
Facebook addressed the question of how Time Management will impact its business in similar, but softer, terms. Facebook sees keeping people engaged, rather than passively scrolling, as good for its bottom line.
“In terms of the business, engagement is a great metric for us, and when people are passively scrolling, that’s not good for us either,” Sloan said. “We want people’s time to be intentional and meaningful — that’s actually good for the business.”
But social media companies would be loathe to put themselves in the same category as the makers of addictive products. That’s because there is a perception seemingly within — and certainly outward facing — that they want their companies to be good for the world.
“They think of themselves as good guys,” Dr. Warner said. “A campaign like this may be somewhat well-motivated to preserve that image. We are interested in you, we’re interested in protecting you, we want to protect the broader society, and so on.”
Tech companies maintain that they truly care about their users. Google told Mashable over email that it tries to listen to the concerns of its users, and created its digital wellbeing tools in response to the 70 percent of Android users it spoke with who want to find a better balance with their phones. When asked about the impetus for digital wellbeing in response to screen time addiction, Google stressed that it takes very seriously what it sees as its responsibility to improve people’s lives.
Apple has also stressed that it wants Screen Time to empower its users, and both Facebook and Instagram (via founder Kevin Roose) echoed that sentiment.
“These tools are the first step in understanding how people better want to use and find a balance with technology,” David Ginsberg, Facebook’s head of research, said. “The goal here is giving people the power to better manage their time, and then allowing them to decide for themselves.”
Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it’s the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.
— Kevin S. (@kevin) May 16, 2018
So it’s likely that Time Well Spent features can both improve the bottom line and retain cagey customers, while also even perhaps being driven by what the tech industry says is good intention.
“What happens is if you overdo it and you burn people out, they dial back and they quit altogether,” Nir Eyal said. “It behooves any product maker to make sure they think in the long term, to enable people to find value in the product for a long time.”
Even if tech companies have possibly rosier-tinted intentions than the addiction-reliant tobacco industry, its Time Well Spent features have more in common with light cigarettes and diet food than just source and motivation.
Just as diet food and light cigarettes caused people to eat and smoke more, respectively, it’s entirely possible that checking your activity dashboard could become an addictive smartphone habit in its own right. Especially for stats-lovers, it’s easy to see how counting what you do on your smart phone just becomes another thing you can’t stop doing.
Then there’s the question of why tech companies chose the options of an activity dashboard, and timers. Mashable reached out to Google, Facebook, Apple, and Instagram, and asked whether and what research these companies conducted or consulted that showed that Time Well Spent features, including activity dashboards, would actually reduce time spent on smartphones. Google and Apple declined to comment. Facebook said that it worked very closely with researchers to learn how social media can improve wellbeing, but has yet to cite, nor did it conduct, specific research showing that time well spent features have a proven ability to impact behavior.
This apparent lack of sound research into the tactics presented to fight a problem mirrors the insufficient scientific work by both the tobacco and food industries, who created solutions that actually made their problems worse.
Yet the way that Time Well Spent diverges from light cigarettes and diet food may actually be the biggest indictment of all. In the case of food and tobacco, these companies changed their products to be “healthier.” The time well spent features tweak the products, but don’t fundamentally change the smartphone. Instead, these tools come with the expectation — presented as an opportunity for empowerment — that it’s up to the users to change their behavior; the onus is not on the products themselves.
Time Well Spent features turn the tables on the problem of screen time addiction. Providing “helpful tools” to let people have supposedly healthier relationships with their phones actually works to absolve the tech industries of blame for creating an addictive product. These tools send the message that the problem is not the addictive product itself — it’s the fact that you, human, get addicted. But there’s no need to go cold turkey, of course — here’s a suite of stats and reminders to have a “healthy relationship” with your time-sucking pocket robot, because we’re here to help.
Burn one down
Of course, there are few among us at this point who would even want to quit our smartphones and social media entirely. As Nir Eyal pointed out, technology has changed the world, and maybe for the better. And, naturally, anything that changes the world does take some time to get right.
“For the first time in human history, we have an abundance of calories and entertainment,” Eyal said. “I don’t know anybody who wants to go back. I think we all would much prefer an age where we can create enough food for everyone. The same thing happens with our technology. We want to be connected to people. But that also learns that we have to moderate our use sometimes.”
And, it’s true that light cigarettes may not be a perfect metaphor for Time Well Spent features, primarily because we don’t know yet that they’ll actually cause harm — beyond maybe keeping some people who were considering quitting hooked up to the matrix.
“I think a better analogy for the tech initiative is fast food restaurants’ publishing of nutritional information on their menus,” Prof. Greta Hsu, who has studied cigarette industry marketing, said. “In both cases, I don’t believe there is reason to assume or expect deception. However, it’s not clear either will impact consumer behavior.”
But… what if we were able to go cold turkey? I’m not sure if I buy the tech industry’s narrative that social media and smart phones have made the world a better place; the ability to instantly connect is not necessarily a gift. That skeptical and concerned counter-story is the one that was starting to get told — and increasingly spread — before Time Well Spent came along to place the tech industry on our side.
What if social media and smart phones have made the world a worse place? If we can acknowledge that no timer, no dashboard, no reminder to breathe or stand, could make the use of a smartphone “healthy,” going cold turkey doesn’t sound unreasonable. Maybe, we shouldn’t just cut down to one cigarette a day, even — but throw out the whole damn pack.
Unlike cigarettes, smartphones and Time Well Spent features won’t kill us. But in our democracy, our social lives, our senses of selves, and our souls, smartphones just might be the death of us. So maybe we should quit, and not just cut back, if we still can.