Step Away From your Screens

A campaign against spending too much time in front of screens is gaining momentum, particularly among activist parents seeking to counter what they believe to be their children’s device addiction.

While this situation is totally understandable, and has been an issue for years, matters have taken on a much more radical turn recently with several non-profit organizations taking up these concerns and putting pressure on the big technology companies to fall in line.

Studies by such organizations reveal the possibility of psychological and physical harm to user, which could entail legal liability to companies like Apple and Google. There’s mounting evidence that spending too much time online is harming our physical and mental wellbeing.

For example, the Center for Humane Technology in the United States conducted a study revealing that eighth-graders who are heavy users of smartphones and social media are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy; 27 percent more likely to be depressed; and 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.

One of the simplest methods to protect children and younger users is to adhere to the minimum ages set by digital services. In fact, the U.S. even has federal regulations that are not being enforced; whereby a user must be 17 years old or more to open a YouTube account, 13 years old or more for Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat! What is actually happening is that close to 40 percent of kids have signed up for all those services by age 11. This situation could be avoided through parental knowledge and supervision.

That’s not all. A campaign called Commercial-Free Childhood filed a petition to Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, urging the company to discontinue Messenger Kids, a social media app designed for users under 13, while the US state of Colorado announced a ballot initiative to ban the sales of smartphones to children under the age of 13.

That’s why the founder of another organization, called Common Sense, says that “tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our kids, and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable.”

Investors in technology companies have been paying attention, and have asked their companies to act; probably driven by a combination of concern for the public and fear of losing future profits due to a backlash.

It actually makes perfect sense for Apple and Google to make it easier for consumers to cut back on phone use, because it could also mean using other products or services that they also offer in what is perceived to be safer and more responsible behavior.

Digital wellness products have taken off, too, whether as wearable devices or software. So these companies are simply pushing us to find a way to form healthy habits, without abandoning our digital devices! Is running while you glance at your smart watch considered to be a harmful screen time? They think not.

Along those lines, Apple’s latest update to the iPhone operating system, iOS 12, includes a new feature called Screen Time which will send users weekly reports on how they are using their device. It will also send parents reports from their children’s phones and set time limits on app usage. Another feature called Do Not Disturb includes a new bedtime mode that will enable users to darken their screen and hide notifications until the morning.

As for Google, they say their aim is to help Android users take back their time. Google says the first step is ‘Awareness’, by understanding one’s habits through monitoring and reporting device and app use. The next step is ‘Action’, whereby Google is introducing various tools in Android updates. App Timer is a tool that lets you set time limits per app, reminds you that you’ve exceeded them and could close the app or prevent you from re-opening it. There’s also Wind Down, which automatically sets your phone to Do Not Disturb at a predetermined time and adjusts your display settings. A related tool is Shush, which allows you to set your phone to Do Not Disturb by flipping it face down.

Does this all still sound a bit too much? It really isn’t. Multiple studies have linked phone alerts to inattention, hyperactivity, and anxiety. In fact, years-long studies have now proven that active online behavior actually places an additional pressure on maintaining virtual relationships in addition to real ones.

Psychiatrists generally agree that our now insatiable appetite for on-demand entertainment, coupled with our psychologically disturbing need for the validation offered by likes, comments and shares means that we could not stop watching or posting even if we wanted to. That is the textbook definition of addiction.