How Apple, Google, etc. are protecting us from ourselves

Screen Time in iOS 12 is just the latest example of a feature designed to curb cellphone and internet addiction.

How Apple, Google, etc. are protecting us from ourselves

Apple, Google, Facebook, Netflix and many other platforms fight for our attention every day. They have become so successful in this endeavor that some observers regard it as a risk to our mental and spiritual well-being. One of the critics is Google’s former Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, who is campaigning against increasing digital addiction and sees the tech companies themselves as being responsible.

They, on the other hand, naturally have a tremendous interest in gaining our attention. The more we use their devices and services, the more and more targeted advertising they can show us. In the case of Apple and Netflix, for example, this is also a way to ensure customer loyalty. Netflix, for example, is constantly flooding the market with new series to ward off the competition. But Amazon is doing the same with its own video streaming service. Therefore, the flood quickly multiplies.

The slot machine in your pocket

Smartphone and internet dependency are not just pipe dreams. Often the same mechanisms are at work here that trigger gambling addiction and exploit our subconscious weaknesses in a targeted way. Modern technology can be used to multiply this addictive factor, as Natasha Dow Schüll has shown in her book “Addiction by Design” using the example of electronic slot machines in Las Vegas.

Each new notification and each new like or comment gives our brain a little sense of achievement. At the same time, the tech companies are deliberately stirring up our subliminal fear of missing something important. They take advantage of our quest for recognition. They try to make us feel guilty if we’re not active enough. And these are just a few examples.

We become increasingly distracted and spend more time with things that are not really important, but just seem to be. And the flow of these distractions is deliberately endless.

Even former Google employee Tristan Harris compares these tricks with those of slot machines. In 2015, he founded his Center for Humane Technology to counteract this development. Its declared goal is “time well spent”. It calls on tech companies to consider the well-being of users and not just their own profits.

Take care with new options against addiction

Some of these companies are now actually taking countermeasures. Apple, for example, has just added a new feature called Screen Time to iOS 12 for all iPhones and iPads. It shows you in detail how often and for what purpose you use your device. You can impose limits on yourself for individual apps or for usage as a whole. Last but not least, parents can use it to monitor and regulate their children’s smartphone use.

Additional features also help put the iPhone aside. You can define times when you don’t want to see any notifications at all on the lock screen and you can only use some selected apps.

The latest Android version has similar features. There is also an overview of how to use your device and for what purpose. And here, too, conscious boundaries can be set. Apps can then no longer be opened. Android even switches to black and white mode to remind you that you didn’t want to use your smartphone just before bed.

Facebook has also discovered just this year that a lot of usage time does not necessarily mean happier users. Often the opposite is the case and people even notice their addictive behavior. Several signs of this are being seen in Facebook’s home country, the USA. According to a study by Pew Research, 26 percent of respondents deleted the app from their mobile phones. 54 percent have changed their privacy settings. And as Nielsen’s market researchers have found, the use of Facebook has decreased by seven percent year-on-year. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, however, considers this to be acceptable. It’s okay if users spend less time on the social network, as he says, and more important that Facebook is a place for meaningful conversations and makes you feel part of a community.

The bottom line

It is part of my daily job to be highly networked and to know about the latest developments. But this does not mean that I can be reached at any time or that I have to be informed immediately about every little thing. I have therefore reduced the number of notifications to an absolute minimum. I switched off the round red stickers on the apps in iOS. I have fixed times in my daily routine to check emails and other messages. And, yes, the world keeps spinning and I have more time for the really important things.