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More than Screen Time: Digital Wellbeing in iOS 12

Why an ecosystem is a necessary component of digital wellbeing.

Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

We at Freedom, along with many other members of the Digital Wellness community, eagerly watched Apple’s announcements of digital wellbeing features in the upcoming iOS 12 release. For many of us, this marked a validation of years of work – and struggle – in our efforts to make technology more humane and less distracting.

Apple’s initiative involved three feature improvements to iOS: Enhanced Do Not Disturb, more granular control of notifications, and an initiative called Screen Time which allows you to track how much time you spend in applications, and set limitations. These features are a big step towards improving our quality of interaction with our iOS devices, and we applaud both Apple and Google (who recently debuted similar features for Android) for taking these steps.

Enhancing Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb was, arguably, Apple’s first foray into “calm tech.” DnD focused on disabling calls and messages, and could either be statically set or scheduled. The shortcomings of DnD emerged pretty quickly: DnD did not turn off notification display, and because it was statically set, you had to remember to turn it back off. In the new DnD, Apple will allow us to turn on DnD for short periods of time, and associate DnD with a geographic location. This is a major step forward in supporting the use case of silencing the phone for brief periods of time when we want to focus our attention elsewhere.

Improving Notifications

Have you ever tried to control notifications on iOS? If you have, I probably don’t need to say any more about the myriad ways Apple could improve the notification experience on iOS. The current process lacks sensible controls (for example, a button to just turn off all notifications) and forces the user to individually control hundreds of applications. And controls are stateful, meaning if you turn them off, they are off for good until you remember to re-enable. This design is out of line with the reality that people have varying information needs throughout the day (sometimes I want notifications, other times I want to focus). The new notification features improve this experience, giving one-button control and even offering to silence non-relevant notifications. This is a big step towards improving one of the most important information experiences on mobile devices.

Screen Time, or Limits Thereof

Arguably, the biggest announcement was Apple’s new Screen Time feature. Screen Time gives users insight into how they are using their phone (time spent in apps, number of phone pickups), and even allows users to set soft limits regarding how much time they spend in apps. It goes without saying that we at Freedom paid close attention to this feature! We’ve always been fond of apps like Moment that can intuitively make you aware of where your time is going – as awareness can produce meaningful change for the better. Being able to connect awareness to the action of blocking is very powerful. When you spend your allotted daily time on Instagram, subsequent app launches will be met with a screen telling you that you are over time. Apple will allow you to bypass this, but as we know even gentle nudges can have big impacts.

The Buried Big Feature?

If you paid close attention, you also noticed that Apple is allowing you to extend Screen Time to other iOS devices, with harder controls. They call this feature Down Time, and in doing so, they have completely revamped the iOS parental management experience. Given the current state of iOS parental controls, this is a major, major change. Parents will now be able to monitor and manage app usage on family devices – a major shift in the balance of power between kids, parents, and devices.

Our Reaction

It is a surreal experience to watch an Apple keynote and see many of the features you’ve worked on suddenly appear in iOS. We’re proud to have been the first iOS app focused on reducing distractions, and we’ll continue innovating in the space. We, and many other developers, have attempted to develop digital wellness features for iOS and have run into every roadblock imaginable: Lack of API’s, threats, App Store rejection, etc. But we come to work each day with a goal of improving the user’s experience – and more attention to the space we work in is always a good thing.  That said, the sheer scale of the problem, social and cultural differences, and the many ways our lives can be improved by humane technology make us somewhat skeptical that Apple can solve all of our problems.  For example, consider the problem case that Apple focused on in their keynote.

The Addiction Problem Case

As I analyzed Apple’s announcement, I kept thinking about the problem these tools are developed towards. It seems that with Screen Time, Apple is focusing on the addiction problem case. And probably for a good reason – most of the discourse around “Screen Time” focuses on addiction (e.g. “I can’t put my phone down,” “I can’t stop checking Instagram”). And while the addiction problem case will cover some of us, there’s a vast number of people who are not “addicted” but still wish to have more calm, focused information environments for work and communication. At Freedom, we’ve served millions of these people who use Freedom as a tool for focus and productivity.

For example, the professional who sits down for two hours of focused work in the morning, and uses Freedom or a similar blocker to turn off the “noise.” Being able to control distractions, and encourage focus is a different use case than addiction controls. For Screen Time to be beneficial in this case, you’d either need to set a very strict limit on distractions, or wait to run the clock out on problematic apps.  These are subtle, but important differences.  This is an example of one unsupported digital wellness use case – and there are many more overlooked by focusing primarily on addiction.

The Path Forward – Openness

Developers of tools for digital wellbeing have traditionally had extremely limited resources for developing solutions for iOS, often relying on workarounds and hacks to build their tools. This lack of openness in Apple’s platform has stunted the growth of the community, at the expense of the end user. As illustrated by Apple’s focus on addiction, there remain many unsupported use cases. 

The question: Will Apple continue to expand its suite of tools for digital wellbeing, obviating the need for other developers in the space? I’d guess not, as the complexity of serving multiple use cases (addiction, focus, productivity, studying, etc) is quite high, and is best suited to an ecosystem approach. At the scale of Apple’s platform, a digital wellness problem case affecting a few million users may not warrant inclusion in the core operating system, but it could be very well served by a few smaller companies.

How can Apple do this?  Quite simply, by opening its platform to the innovative developers in the digital wellbeing space.  Apple can leverage the collective wisdom we have developed after years researching and building our products.  Companies would gladly take products to market that solve key challenges of attention and distraction. We started Freedom with the belief that we were working on the biggest information challenge of our day. As devices become more prevalent and distracting, it is imperative that solutions are developed to help people harness the incredible power of these devices while limiting the downside. 

This challenge is of such a scale that it’s unreasonable to expect that one company can solve all our problems, so it is our hope that Apple reinforces its commitment to digital wellbeing by opening API’s so that third-party developers can create innovative solutions in the space. We echo the call of Andrew Murray Dunn and Arianna Huffington for Apple to create a Humanity Kit, and encourage you to co-sign the petition encouraging Apple to bring openness to digital wellness.

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