Google and Apple are two of the biggest technology companies in the world. They've made their fortunes—and gained global dominance in the process—by encouraging us to spend as much time as possible on our smartphones, laptops, and other devices. But in the spring of 2018, both companies announced plans to help users spend less time glued to their screens.
In May, Google announced it would be making over its entire suite of products, with many changes made in the name of moderation. "Great technology should improve life, not distract from it," Google said in its announcement of a new Digital Wellbeing initiative. The upcoming Android P software update will introduce dashboards that give users daily insight into the amount of time they spend on their phone, including data broken down by specific apps. It will also allow users to set limits on how much time they get in a given app before the screen goes greyscale. YouTube, which is owned by Google, will soon have "custom breathers" that users can schedule at various intervals to remind them just how long they've been watching.
Meanwhile, Apple announced the iOS 12 will have a "Screen Time" feature, which provides similar tools. As with Android's dashboard, iOS users will get more hard data on their usage and habits, as well as the ability to limit app usage, and customize notifications so that they are "deliver[ed] quietly" to the notification center instead of the lock screen.
Both of these initiatives sound great and they very well could help consumers take back their time. But experts in the field of addictive design are quick to note that the very companies offering Screen Time controls and Digital Wellbeing advice are the same companies that have spent decades commercializing our attention and advancing the real and vibrant field of addictive design.
One of several new features Google is rolling out to help users control their time.
To see the success of addictive design, look no further than your home screen. Each month, more than 330 million people, including the president of the United States, login into Twitter, a social media app built around 280 character "tweets." If Twitter's only priority was ease of use, a user's feed would load automatically. But instead there's a short delay: The iconic bird logo flutters on a blued-out screen as you wait for the timeline to load. Even when you've entered the app, Twitter serves you an older version of your feed—roughly dated to the last time you opened the app—and users have to manually push a "See new Tweets" button or scroll to rise to see the most recent tweets in the semi-chronological feed.