Executives at Apple and Google unveiled on-device features to help people monitor and restrict how much time they spent on their phones. Facebook and Instagram, two of the biggest time sucks on the planet, also rolled out time spent notifications and the ability to snooze their apps — new features meant to nudge people to scroll through their apps a little less mindlessly.
These companies all became fluent in the language of “time well spent,” a movement to design technology that respects users’ time and doesn’t exploit their vulnerabilities. Since the movement sprang up nearly seven years ago, it has invoked mass introspection and an ongoing debate over technology use, which people blame for a swath of societal ills including depression and suicide, diminished attention spans, and decreased productivity.
But a year after Big Tech rolled out their time-well-spent features, it doesn’t seem like they’re working: The time we spend on our devices just keeps increasing.
Fortunately, the problem might not be that bad in the first place. Though correlations exist, there’s no causal link between digital media usage and the myriad problems some speculate it causes.
“Every time new tech comes out, there’s a moral panic that this is going to melt our brains and destroy society,” Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, told Recode. “In almost every case, we sort of look back at these things and laugh.”
What “time well spent” has done is spurred a whole cottage industry to help people “digitally detox,” and it’s being led in part by the big tech companies responsible for — and that benefit from — our reliance on tech in the first place. As Quartz writer Simone Stolzoff put it, “‘Time well spent’ is having its Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment. What began as a social movement has become a marketing strategy.”
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