By Larry Magid
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
The common expression “too much of a good thing” can apply to almost everything that we enjoy, including the internet and mobile devices. My grandparents understood that, but apparently, many of my contemporaries don’t when it comes to tech. I’m guilty as well. I can think of many occasions when I’ve sat down at my computer or started gazing at my mobile phone, only to realize hours later that I’ve just wasted the better part of an evening.
Of course, the companies that make those “good things,” want you to use them as much as possible, but — whether because of pressure or because of a newfound awareness, Google has gotten the message and soon will offer Android users tools to check how much time they’re spending in apps, how often they’re unlocking their phones and how many notifications they receive. Android users will also get a more robust “do not disturb” feature, including a “shush” gesture that automatically puts the phone into do-not-disturb mode when you turn it over.
Android also gets a “wind down” feature that “gets the phone ready for bed,” by either activating a nightlight that reduces blue light, which is said to interfere with sleep, or go into grayscale to get rid of all colors. That not only eliminates blue light but also makes the phone less appealing to use.
These features will appear in the upcoming “Android P” operating system that will be available for compatible Android phones.
The move is part of Google’s “Digital Well Being” initiative that it launched at its Google I/O developers conference Tuesday, and it’s not limited to Android. The company is also adding features to encourage YouTube viewers to take more breaks. This includes a “take a break reminder” that will appear after a specified period of time and a dashboard that summarizes how long you’ve been on the site. And, by default, your phone won’t beep between 10 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. if you receive a notification from YouTube. You can also limit those notifications to once a day.
The YouTube notification system is a good start, but on my Android phone, I’ve gone through the time-consuming exercise of turning off notifications for all but essential apps such as texting, phone calls and alerts from my home security system. I don’t need to be interrupted every time I get an email message or someone mentions me in a tweet or even when my favorite news sites post something they think is urgent.
One thing Google could do to improve my well-being would be to make it easier to turn off notifications — perhaps by letting you control all apps from a single screen or having notifications off by default with the exception of essential apps.
Google has launched a new digital well-being page (wellbeing.google/) that describes all of its new initiatives including ways to reduce clutter in photos and minimize distractions while driving. There are also links to services for kids and families like Youtube Kids and Family Link, essentially a parent-controlled smartphone for kids.
Last month YouTube Kids was updated to allow parents to limit their children to age-appropriate “trusted channels” that have been vetted by humans along with the ability for parents to approve only the videos they want their kids to see. The app had been criticized for allowing commercial content that some considered to be inappropriate for young children.
Not just Google
Google, of course, isn’t the only company that has apps that can be enjoyed a bit too often. Facebook has been repeatedly criticized for doing all it can to keep people online and coming back. Like Google, the company says that it’s working on ways to empower users to take more control over how much time they spend on the service and what they do while online.
Last year 60 Minutes ran a segment on “brain hacking,” featuring former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, that compared smartphones with slot machines. “Everytime I check my phone I’m playing the slot machine to see what did I get. This is one way to hijack people’s minds and form a habit.” These little rewards include likes, comments and retweets that keep us coming back to see how people are responding to us on social media.
In the interview, Harris pointed to Snapchat “Snapstreaks,” which “shows the number of days in a row you’ve sent a message back and forth to someone.” On its website, Snapchat says, “To keep a Snapstreak going, both Snapchatters must send a Snap (not Chat) back and forth to each other within a 24 hour window.”
Harris, who founded the Center for Humane Technology, has been pressuring companies to create “humane design standards, policy, and business models that more deeply align with our humanity and how we want to live.”
There have been some who compare Facebook, Google and other tech companies to big tobacco. But, as a speaker at a recent conference I attended quipped, they may be more like chocolate companies. Unlike cigarettes, dark chocolate, in moderation, may be good for you.
Although I applaud companies for acknowledging potential overuse or misuse of their products, I also appreciate the limitations of what they can accomplish. Just as with chocolate, alcohol or my drug of choice — coffee — it’s up to each of us to decide whether to use these products and how much and how often. Just as with restaurants posting nutritional information, there are things that internet companies can do to help us use their products more responsibly, but it’s still up to us to control just how much Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and other media we consume.