Unplug & Recharge//

How Far is Apple Willing to Go in The Digital Wellness Race?

The company says it wants to help users manage screen time. Can it fulfill that commitment?

Do Not Disturb during Bedtime mode - one of the new features Apple announced at WWDC.

Pinch me, I must be dreaming.
A year ago, people thought we were crazy for arguing the immense scale of the tech addiction problem. Many questioned if the issue even existed. With Apple and Google’s recent announcements, it’s clear that society is finally starting to wake up from the hypnosis of technology and deal with reality. This is a victory for the humane tech movement.

At Siempo (currently Android only), we are thrilled that our iOS friends and family will have easier access to a great set of tools to help them build healthier digital habits. 

However, we are skeptical that Apple will be able to go the distance here. Most features Apple announced today are a carbon copy of products other developers already offer. iOS doesn’t allow third party developers to offer robust tools, and the company has real disincentives to fully solve the problem.

What would it take for Apple to redesign the smartphone for digital health?
We are fond of Tristan Harris’s digital city analogy:

We’re all living in this digital city designed by urban planners Apple and Google. Today it’s completely unregulated and polluted, with casinos and junk food on every corner. Shouldn’t there be zoning laws? Shouldn’t health and safety products be allowed in the marketplace?

Whereas Google is a land of opportunity for digital wellness entrepreneurs, it’s illegal in Apple’s world for developers like Siempo to offer effective tools that can help users who are struggling with smartphone and social media addiction, and the associated mental health symptoms. 

Apps like Space, Freedom, Lilspace and Flipd are the protective gear we need to navigate these cities more safely. We’re the helmet and seatbelt, sunscreen and air filter, the clean and safe neighborhood. Some of us are allowed a limited existence on iOS; others aren’t allowed in period.

Apple’s latest update amounts to what the gambling industry has done to acknowledge and address gambling addiction: display pamphlets around casinos and suggest that problem gamers opt-in to a self-exclusion list. Helpful for some, but doesn’t change anything about the casino environment—which offers no protection from the products which are engineered for dependency—and the business objectives of the company, which are to sell more devices and apps.

The path forward.
The small features announced today cannot solve such a complex social problem alone. Digital Wellness Warriors are calling on Apple to let developers make meaningful changes to the iPhones interface, notifications and user experience in order to accelerate the availability of protections for users who are struggling. By opening their SDK, Apple can unleash a wave of innovation and network effects from a passionate developer community, reinforcing Apple’s brand as a leader in technology for human flourishing.

In the absence of changes on the developer side, and with growing consumer demand for healthier technology, Apple may find itself in a catch-22 whereby it will need to solve this complex problem by itself, in a shorter timeframe, and while taking a significant hit to device and App Store revenue. 

Today’s WWDC announcement is a positive step forward, and necessary, but we should be able to bring an ecosystem approach to solving what many of us consider the biggest socio-technical problem today.

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