Google Takes Aim At Tech Addiction With New Initiative

By Bryan Le 05/14/18

Google is planning software solutions to help users battle tech addiction, but some experts say their planned features won't work.

Top view of smartphone with Facebook apps on android Play Store.Facebook is an American online social media and social networking service based in Menlo Park, California
Knowing how much time you spend on social media won't help, experts say.

At the Google I/O developer conference, Google revealed an initiative called “Digital Wellbeing,” which is intended to help people from feeling so anchored to their devices.

The idea is to transition them from FOMO, the fear of missing out, to JOMO, appreciating the joy of missing out. But experts say the suite of features, to be rolled out on Google’s Android phones, don’t really have a strong scientific basis.

The new features include tools that track and display the time spent on social media apps and websites, the ability to block related notifications, and adjust screen settings near bedtime to promote sleep instead of late-night phone browsing.

Their planned Dashboard feature will track stats such as how often the phone or tablet is checked, overall time spent on devices, and the aforementioned social media time tracking that will record how long users have spent on apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

The features are being rolled out as an answer to recent claims that social media sites and apps represent a mental health risk. The Royal Society of Public Health ranked Instagram as leading the pack in being “the most detrimental to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

The photo-sharing app earned this dishonorable distinction because it had developed a reputation of being a haven for pro-anorexia and pro-self harm posts, but Instagram has since built a “wellbeing team” to address such issues.

Despite such media chatter and the responses from social media platforms like Instagram, some experts are saying that there isn’t much scientific evidence to back up these claims.

One such expert, Oxford Internet Institute senior research fellow Andrew Przybylski, has been trying to replicate such data. However, he hasn’t had much luck in finding the link between social media use and depression.

Most of the studies, he says, have serious flaws, such as laughably small sample sizes or poor controls.

“It is literally the lowest quality of evidence that you could give that people wouldn't laugh you out of the room,” Przybylski told Business Insider.

He co-authored a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science that surveyed over 120,000 teenagers and found that more time spent on devices did not affect the mental health of a massive majority of the teens. It even helped if the teens were engaged two to four hours a day.

“Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous,” Przybylski’s paper concluded.

More time on phones may not be harmful, so tracking hours spent on social media won’t necessarily create benefits on the mental health front, he says.

Google also touted a new feature that will put the phone in “do not disturb” mode when placed face down. However, research has shown that while a constant torrent of notifications does induce anxiety, muting such notifications can actually increase anxiety.

“Participants who did not receive notifications experienced higher levels of anxiety and fears of missing out,” researchers found. “These findings highlight mental costs inherent in today's notification systems (or of abandoning them).”

Researchers noted that users who received their notifications in batches, rather than as a stream, did feel less stressed.

Google also plans to adjust the display to grayscale close to bedtime to promote users to put their phones down and sleep. A large body of research has shown that the blue light from LED screens does keep people awake, which is the rationale behind blue light filters available on some devices that turn the screen a dim orange-yellow.

However, there isn’t strong scientific evidence that a black-and-white display does anything to help users sleep.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter