Chapter 4: I don’t want a dumbphone, but my screentime is awful!
On Screen Time, design, and software matters.
This is chapter 4 of my upcoming book Low Tech Lifestyle. As a free subscriber, you get a free preview :). Premium subscribers get access to the whole book. Thanks for your support!
I can still vividly recall that day. The skies were clear, and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves outside my window as I eagerly sat down to watch the Apple event. As the presentation unfolded and the new "Screen Time" feature was announced, I felt a surge of hope swelling in my chest. I genuinely believed that this new iPhone update would help me overcome my addiction to YouTube and Reddit, putting an end to the countless hours I had wasted on my device. My heart raced as I downloaded the update, meticulously setting up limits for my two most problematic apps, and basking in the satisfaction of finally taking control of my digital habits. But as the sun set and rose again, bringing forth a new day, I quickly realized that my excitement was short-lived. Within just 24 hours, I stumbled upon a glaring flaw in the Screen Time feature: it was all too easy to bypass the restrictions with a couple of taps. The first prompt innocently asked if I needed more time, while the second temptingly offered to disable my self-imposed limits for the rest of the day. My initial enthusiasm was replaced by a sinking feeling of disappointment, as I understood that the onus was still on me to resist the allure of endless content.
Apple's Screen Time feature, initially hailed as a helpful tool for managing phone use, had proven to be less effective than anticipated. While the feature aimed to set boundaries on device usage, it appears that its ultimate goal may have been to encourage users to engage more with Apple's platform, thereby boosting corporate profits or the like. In a 2019 Wall Street Journal article, Reed Albergotti revealed an unsurprising reality: "kids are outsmarting an army of engineers from Cupertino, Calif., home to Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley." The parental discovery led to concerns about the ease with which children could bypass Screen Time restrictions, using platforms like Reddit and YouTube to share knowledge and techniques for defeating the feature. Some parents commented about the disappointment that a company that had promised a real solution to their kids addiction wouldn't be very responsive to the exploits shared in online forums. As a result, many children were able to continue the very behaviors their parents sought to curtail. Child psychologist Adam Pletter highlighted in the same piece the potential danger of Apple's service, stating that it can create a false sense of security among parents who believe they are effectively monitoring their children's device usage.1
Even for adults, Screen Time has proven to be less than foolproof. The feature can be exploited and disabled by users looking to avoid limitations on unhelpful or time-wasting apps. While apps like Screen Time may provide some utility in tracking one's smartphone usage, they seem to fall short in their primary goal: to help users reduce the time they spend in front of screens. As Laura Zimmerman noted in her research, despite the promise of these applications, they often fail to deliver meaningful reductions in phone use. They serve as the means to keep track of your usage, but will not make a dent in creating healthier habits.2 As the days turned into weeks, my issue of constant screen access merely evolved into a series of easily bypassable nudges and reminders. The result remained the same: I spent countless hours on my device, my attention held hostage by the digital world, while my Master's papers lay abandoned on my desk. During this crucial period of my life, I found myself questioning my ability to break free from the invisible chains tethering me to my phone. It was during one of those introspective moments that I remembered a situation from my time in Berrien Springs that echoed my own struggle. The town had been buzzing with excitement when local politicians announced the implementation of a bike lane, touting it as a means to promote eco-friendly transportation. With great fanfare, the project was completed, and the bike lane stretched invitingly along the streets, encouraging residents to choose a healthier, greener way to commute.
However, when winter arrived, and snow blanketed the roads of the town, the shortcomings of this initiative became apparent. The bike lane, now buried beneath a thick layer of snow, lay abandoned and unusable. No one took responsibility for clearing the path, and the once-promising solution to reducing pollution and promoting healthy living turned into another example of an incomplete effort. This situation in Berrien Springs served as a stark reminder that simply creating a solution is not enough – there must be a genuine commitment to see it through, and ensure that it is effective in achieving its intended goal. Much like the bike lane, the Screen Time feature on my iPhone had become an incomplete solution, placing the onus on me, rather than truly helping me achieve the goal to leave endless content aside.
As we delve deeper into the concept of transition devices, it's important to understand that they are not designed to serve as a digital detox. Instead, transition devices are meant to be the first step in a larger transformation towards a digitally balanced lifestyle. If you approach these devices solely as a means to detox from the internet, they may provide temporary relief, but lasting change may be difficult to achieve, as you are only using them for a limited period. Transition devices are intended to serve as an intermediate stage on the journey towards digital wellbeing. They often feature smaller or alternative form factors that create friction for users while retaining enough smart features to alleviate anxiety and maintain essential functionality.
To illustrate the importance of size and form factor, I'd like to share a personal story about my struggle with weight management over the past decade. I have always had a passion for food and enjoy indulging in well-prepared meals. Dining out, I would order appetizers, main dishes, and desserts to satisfy my cravings and make the most of the experience. At home, I aimed to create meals that would delight my palate. In the first chapter, I discussed the lifestyle changes I made regarding exercise and food intake. Now, I want to share the single factor that has had the most significant impact on my journey towards healthier eating habits: the size of my plate.
Growing up in Nicaragua, my mother prepared amazing meals with simple ingredients that were always rich in flavor. The size of my plate, however, remained constant throughout my formative years. With an 8-inch diameter, my plate could only hold so much food. I loved my mom's cooking, but the portions were just enough for the day – nothing more, nothing less. Upon moving to the United States, I was astonished by the size of "regular" plates, which averaged 12 inches in diameter – 50% larger than those in other parts of the world. It's no wonder that issues with weight management and related diseases are prevalent in America, given the enormity of our food and drink containers compared to the rest of the world. A "medium" soft drink in U.S. food halls would be considered extra-large elsewhere. Size indeed matters when it comes to consumption.
As a study on the effect of screen size when viewing Netflix reveals, participants who used "the small 4.5-inch phone screen recorded the lowest immersion scores, and there was a significant main effect of screen size on immersion scores when compared to both the 13-inch laptop and 30-inch monitor screens." Participants who used larger screens were further grasped by the experience than those who had smaller sized devices.3 Over the past decade, smartphones have undergone a significant transformation, with screen size being a notable aspect of change. Since 2012, iPhones and Android devices have consistently increased in screen size, from the early models with a 3.5-inch display to the latest models boasting 5.5-inch and larger screens. I still recall the release of the Galaxy Note, featuring a massive screen and body with a stylus, which was the first of its kind in the market. While the large screen was appealing for consuming content, the overall size was cumbersome and challenged the notion of a phone's portability. During this time period, people stuck to their 3.5 to 4 inch screens instead of succumbing to the gargantuan form factor.
However, fast forward 10 years, and companies have managed to fit larger displays into slimmer, bezel-less devices, which have become increasingly popular among customers. The larger screens have enabled a more immersive experience, increasing the interaction between customers and their devices, thereby creating a more intimate relationship between people and technology. As a result, people are more drawn to their phones, often at the expense of engaging with the world around them. The screen size of smartphones has become an important factor in customer satisfaction, and companies are investing heavily in research and development to improve the screen-to-body ratio and overall display quality. While larger screens may enhance the user experience, they can also lead to negative consequences, such as eye strain and a decreased ability to focus on real-world tasks. Therefore, it is important to find a balance between the advantages of larger screens and the need to disconnect from technology and engage with the world.
Transition devices, then, can be a helpful tool in our efforts to reevaluate and adjust our relationship with technology. These devices, with their smaller screens or flip-style design, encourage users to focus on essential communication functions while leaving more robust tasks to laptops, tablets, or desktop computing devices. This separation creates a need for planning instead of constantly consuming digital content throughout the day. Just as smaller plates can assist with weight management, opting for devices with more manageable form factors can create a natural barrier against overconsumption, helping us strike a healthier balance between our digital and real-world lives. As you prepare to make a selection for your low-tech lifestyle, keep in mind that the size and form of the device you choose will impact how often and how you use it.
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