spent 19 and a half hours on my phone last week. Eight of those were spent on Instagram — a full day’s work. Three were spent texting gifs and apologies for being away from my phone (presumably). One was spent watching ASMR videos on YouTube. Two minutes were spent on Adidas.com and a reasonable 60 seconds were spent on Venmo — just long enough to exchange over $100 dollars alongside bad food puns like “(r)Amen” and “on my wurst behavior.”
Screen Time, the iPhone feature that tracks this information, was announced by Apple in June 2018 as part of the company’s forthcoming operating system (iOS 12). Marketed as a tool that would enable users to track and manage their phone usage, it made headlines in every major news outlet as the company’s first step towards addressing phone addiction. “We want people to be incredibly satisfied and empowered by our devices that we ship,” CEO Tim Cook told CNN, “but we’ve never wanted people to spend a lot of time — or all of their time on them.”
My transgressions last week added up to nearly three hours spent looking down at my device daily. Hours I could have spent enriching my mind, like by learning how to say “ramen” in Japanese (it’s “ramen”), or finally reading Walden. But it never really shakes out that way, does it?
The conversation around phone addiction has grown increasingly feverish over the past few years, with tons of researchers attempting to quantify its health impacts. But similar to other findings of the quantified-self movement — like how sedentary we are, or how much waste we produce — I suspect the information has been most efficient at drumming up horror. I know few people, for example, that have succeeded in limiting their phone usage since Screen Time’s launch, but almost everyone I know agrees they probably should. Why the cognitive dissonance?
The Four Screen Time Archetypes
“I’m afraid to look,” said Madeline, 29, in response to a survey I sent out inquiring whether people have found the tool annoying or useful. “I usually swipe it away like a bug on my towel at the beach. Quickly and without letting my eyes really focus on it.”
Madeline is what I’ve come to refer to as a “Guilty Swiper” — one of four archetypes that emerged from the over 380 passionate replies I received, along with the Apathetic, in Good Faith and Conspiracy Theorists.
Antoinette, 25, Apathetic, compares the notifications to “getting a new pair of white shoes: the first couple of scuffs seem world-ending but after a certain amount it’s just a lost cause.”
This is what connects the guilty and the apathetic: our ultimately unchanged behavior. Such a finding stands in stark contrast to the expected effect of Screen Time. When the tool launched last June, the general response was that knowing how much we are on our phones could serve as nothing but an urgent wakeup call. “I suspect it will profoundly change how we use our phones,” predicted Farhad Manjoo in a piece for The New York Times.
But as reviews trickled in, a more concerning reality became apparent — that perhaps the numbers could simply be horrifying, and inspire nothing. “I’ve spent two weeks using iOS 12,” wrote Heather Kelly for CNN, “and although it hasn’t changed my habits just yet, I am much more aware of — and anxious about — my relationship with my phone.”
I noted this tension in many survey responses. “It makes me want to throw my phone down a subway grate,” said Rachel, 27.
But amid the apathetic and the guilty exists a (minuscule) minority group considerably more cheerful: the in Good Faith archetype, who have found Screen Time helpful. “I personally like to quantify things and I find it helpful for my anxiety to have evidence I’m not a lazy piece of shit wasting away my life in front of my phone,” said Caitlin, 26, echoing others in her group. It seems Screen Time, then, is “only effective if you want it to be,” as writer Joanna Stern put it in The Wall Street Journal.
“I can’t bring myself to turn them on,” said Abby, 31. “It would mean coming to terms with an addiction that I’m simply not prepared for. I can only afford to go to therapy every other week so.”
My favorite sleeper archetype was the Conspiracy Theorists. This group believes Apple is either lowballing the numbers to get them to stay on their phones (Marissa, 30), shoving them in their faces as proof that battery drainage is their own fault (Kate, 28), using them as a ploy to sell Apple Watches (Ryan, 26), or my favorite: It’s simply a new way for people to show off. “Is Screen Time the new step count?” asked Alice.
Screen Time as Quantified Self
It’s a prescient question for a population embroiled in the do-better-be-better wellness movement. In a time when information has never flowed so freely, and personal responsibility has never been taken more seriously, Screen Time enables us to examine our most prolific habit with troubling specificity. And in doing so, it asks that we indict ourselves first and foremost. But when phones have been integrated into our social, personal and professional lives to the extent that we face consequences for tuning out, what does such a tool really offer us?
“I feel massively guilty and swear to myself (and my family) that I’m going to work on my addictive behaviour,” said Daisy, 42, echoing dozens of others. “Then I secretly spend even more time on my phone.”
Taken as an isolated figured, Screen Time paves a tidy path to self-loathing. It’s an individual measure that discounts systemic movements that may be increasing our screen time, such as companies designing apps and devices to hold our attention and run our lives; 24/7 work schedules; widespread anxiety incited by economic uncertainty; parasocial relationships fueled by late capitalism; the gig economy; the content economy; the information economy, etc.
Swapping the macro for the micro can be an empowering shift, but in the wrong hands, it can also mean narrowing what ought to be a big picture. Through that lens, Apple telling us to put our phones down is not unlike an oil company telling us to carpool, or a Victoria’s Secret model telling us to love our bodies — it’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly right, either. And it’s that inherent tension that feels distinctly modern about Screen Time and our collective response to it.
Whether we’re Apathetic, a Guilty Swiper, in Good Faith, or a Conspiracy Theorist, we’re united by our desire to hold someone accountable for something complicated and chaotic. Screen Time is appealing in its simplicity and implication, but I suspect it’s largely ineffective because it solves only one diminutive piece of a sprawling 3D puzzle. It’s a blunt instrument; an excellent PR maneuver that markets nicely as a self-improvement tool. That’s not to say it can’t be useful, but to presume it’s the canary in the coal mine of our imminent self-destruction? That feels too easy.
What do you think? Do you care about Screen Time?
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.