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Smartphone Ethics in a Post-Screen Time World

Are we mistaking addiction for connection?

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The PSA starts as most do: with a somber-looking man sitting in a chair, his eyes damp and downcast. The background is grayscale and somber, the music low and severe.

“At first I just dabbled with it like everyone else in Hollywood,” the man in the chair admits, “Things really spiraled out of control. Next thing I knew, I was doing it 24/7. I didn’t even recognize I had a problem until my sister Angela said something.”

The interviewer gently cuts in from offscreen to press for details.

“That’s the crazy part,” the man says, hushed, “I don’t even have a sister.”

He looks down – and finally, the audience can see that he isn’t looking down to ward off tears, but to tap at a brightly-colored collection of blocks on his phone. The cluster promptly explodes in a shower of sparks and cheerful sound effects. The would-be gaming apologist smiles. Off-camera, the interviewer clears his throat and tries to cut in again, only to be shushed by his subject as he taps at yet another block. The director gives up, unable to compete with the game.

As you can probably guess, the PSA was a spoof: one video in a series of collaborations between actor Ryan Reynolds and the mobile game Toon Blast. The twist deserves a chuckle – and perhaps a closer look.

The premise is ridiculous. The average person probably wouldn’t game during an anti-game PSA, pass off acting work to a comically unfit double, or pat a dramatically wailing friend on the back while maintaining eye contact with his screen. We feel comfortable snickering because the distraction at hand seems benign and because Reynolds’ deadpan makes every absurd twist a little more comical. And yet, while they rest in improbability, we can still recognize our own (exaggerated) digital obsessions in Reynold’s increasingly absurd series of jokes.  

Consider the statistics. According to the latest reports from Counterpoint Research, nearly 50% of all smartphone users are on their phones for well over five hours each day, while the average adult in the US spends three and a half hours on their mobile device. We are truly, thoroughly, and undeniably plugged in.

But never fear; the apparent key to returning users to analog life is within reach – and it comes from an unlikely source.

In 2018, Apple announced that it would be rolling out Screen Time, an iOS service that would allow iPhone and iPad users to track how much time they spend in-app, how many notifications they receive, and how often they pick up their phones. The innovation assumes that if users have a transparent accounting of their mobile use, they will be able to police their time online before they verge into overuse. Screen Time even comes with tools meant to help mobile users cut back, including daily time limit notifications, advanced “do not disturb” features, and the option to group, hide, or defer notifications altogether.   

This push towards digital disinterest might seem odd coming from Apple, given how much time and resources they and similar tech companies have dedicated towards encouraging, rather than limiting, usage of their products.

We live in an age of interruptions and diversions. Some of the most-used apps today are specifically designed to attract and keep our attention for longer than we might intend. In a recent article for BBC News, leading technology engineer and infinite scroll inventor Aza Raskin shared that many designers were pushed to create addictive app environments for business interests. He states that, “In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up […] So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you’re going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”

The result? We spend more time tuned out of the real world, bogged down in the digital lives our mobile phones invite us to lead. To quote Nir Eyal, author of the bestselling book Hooked, “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions […] It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.”

The World Health Organization, for its part, officially recognized gaming disorder as a legitimate condition during the summer of this year. The Organization hasn’t come out with broader conclusions about the addictive nature of social media and other in-phone apps in general; however, its findings regarding gaming paints Ryan Reynolds’ comically obsessive passion for Toon Blast in a darker and more cynical light.

All of this raises a few moral questions. Do tech companies have an obligation to check the addictive nature of their products? Will services like Screen Time help us put our phones down and re-engage with the world around us?

For the latter, I’m not optimistic.

Apple offers Screen Time as an answer to users’ concerns about technology addiction, but it isn’t the first to try. In 2015, Android released QualityTime: a service which offered insights into a user’s weekly app and phone use and provided gentle warnings when they went over their time limit for an app. It sounds, down to the name, like a precursor to Apple’s product – and yet, two years later, QualityTime hasn’t established itself as the be-all, end-all cure for compulsive app-checking. If Android’s offerings were the trial run for Screen Time, its underwhelming impact certainly doesn’t bode well for iPhone users’ attempts to unplug.

Interestingly, the main problem seems to be the users themselves. In accounts about using Screen Time, reviewers inevitably fall back on their unwillingness to unplug. As Wall Street Journal tech writer Joanna Stern dryly reflects after two months of using Screen Time, “For those of us who compulsively check our phones—sometimes even when watching our children on the playground, or crossing the street—Apple’s lock is like Scotch tape on a pack of cigarettes.”

Here, we see the crux of the problem. The effectiveness of programs like Screen Time comes down to the whims of the users themselves. Users need to want to put their phones out of view, pay attention to warning banners, or opt into a less-interesting grayscale display – and for the most part, we don’t. As well-meaning as Screen Time is, it won’t solve the problem at hand: the apps we love to check are designed to be entertaining. Our concern is spoken but not observed; in our apathy, we’re all Ryan Reynolds caricatures – allowing our tech fix to creep into the demands of our everyday lives.

The Screen Time service is a nice gesture. It allows Apple to meet consumer concerns over tech addiction and provide a means for consumers to check themselves – but its efficacy flounders when those consumers ignore the service’s warnings. Given that apps still need to engage their consumers and that consumers still want to be entertained, though, I have little doubt that engineers will continue to create platforms that keep users glued to their screens, or that we will continue to use them. If tech companies have a moral obligation to answer the issue of tech addiction, Screen Time is more of a disclaimer than a solution to the problem we face.

In the end, Apple’s Screen Time will probably go the way of Android’s QualityTime: forgotten if well-meant; a tool that might have helped if only we had bothered to use it.

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