A new feature in the next iPhone software is going to shock people -- it surprised even Apple's CEO

Business Insider
  • A new feature in the iPhone operating system shows how much time you spend on your phone.
  • You’ll be able to download it this spring.
  • People are going to be shocked about the number of hours per day they spend on their phone.

I’ve never had a software update cause me to rethink my lifestyle, but the latest version of the iPhone operating system forced me to take a hard look at myself – and my relationship with my iPhone.

And when everyone gets access to iOS 12 this fall, it’s going to surprise millions of people.

Tucked into the updated iPhone settings menu is a new collection of features called Screen Time. It collects data on how many times you use your phone and how many times you pick it up. It also includes statistics on which apps you use most, and how many notifications you receive.

Apple Screen TimeAppleAn example Screen Time screenshot. Not my stats.

Reader, I was shocked. This week, I picked up my phone about 248 times per day on average. I use my phone for so many hours on a daily basis I’m embarrassed to share the exact number, but it’s upwards of 5 hours.

Before I looked at these stats, I didn’t think I had a phone problem. I’ve actively tried to limit notifications, and I try really hard not to check my phone during meetings or conversations, so I’m not being rude to people around me.

I’m still not sure if I have a phone problem, but I may simply be in denial. The fact is that I’m using my phone for a huge number of my waking hours – a way higher percentage than I would have guessed without these stats.

Not alone

I’m not alone in being surprised at the statistics in Apple’s Screen Time feature. At Apple’s annual developer conference, which took place in San Jose, California earlier this month, hundreds of software engineers downloaded and installed the beta version of iOS with Screen Time, and many of them were surprised too.

The Screen Time feature was a common topic of conversation among the people who had travelled to California to learn how to best make software for Apple computers. But like myself, many attendees who would discuss phone overuse in general were also hesitant to share their official stats, as if they were an embarrassing secret.

Even Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, said that the numbers surprised him.

“I’ve been using it and I have to tell you: I thought I was fairly disciplined about this. And I was wrong,” Cook said in an interview with CNN. “When I began to get the data, I found I was spending a lot more time than I should.”

Which apps was he using the most?

“I don’t want to give you all the apps. But too much. And the number of times I picked up the phone were too many,” Cook continued. “I also found the number of notifications I was getting just didn’t make sense anymore. You know, Notifications started out as something to tell you about something really important happening. And all too often now, it’s like everything is important.”

According to Cook, though, Apple isn’t worried that giving this information to users could impact Apple’s business.

Screen Time limitApple

“We’ve never been focused on usage as a key parameter. We want people to be incredibly satisfied, and empowered by our devices that we ship,” Cook said in the CNN interview. “But we’ve never wanted people to spend a lot of time, or all their time, on them. It’s a personal thing about how much is too much. “

Changing standards

There is some hope that Apple’s new features – as well as similar updates from Google – may start changing the focus around digital health and and shifting cultural assumptions and conventions.

“This will set a new direction and new race to the top for who cares more about protecting human values,” Tristan Harris, a former Google designer who has become a digital health activist,tweeted after Apple announced Screen Time.

But now, the features seem to be advisory. They’re tools to assess your phone usage, not to fix it. They’re not going to change people’s habits by themselves.

I turned on a Screen Time feature called Downtime. By default, after 10 p.m. it locked me out of every app that wasn’t a core feature like calls and texts, including all games and all social networks. I couldn’t check Twitter or use Safari until the morning. In practice, it’s a lot like a stripped-down “essential mode” suggested by several groups, including Stanford Students Against Addictive Devices.

For me, it worked – for the most part I didn’t use my phone after 10. But I ended up checking Twitter or playing games on my laptop or iPad instead. There was also an option to ignore the time limit and use a blocked app anyway, although I never did.

“The problem lies more in the social expectations around how we all participate in these behaviours,” said Alana Harvey, a co-founder of Flipd, an app that locks people out of distracting apps. “Spending way too much time on social media, caring too much about social media, caring too much responding really quickly to people, Googling things rather that sitting and having a debate.”

“There are going to be all these features, but are they going to assist with helping people actually getting off their phones and do something better with their time?” she asked. “At the end of the day, it’s very much in a user’s hands to make those decisions.”

In my weeklong experience with Screen Time, I realised that the features by themselves aren’t going to reduce a heavy user’s daily time, although Apple’s Screen Time does let you set time limits (that the user can override.) But just knowing the scope of the problem is the first step.

“Empowering people with the facts, will allow them to decide themselves how they want to cut back, or if they want to cut back,” Cook said in the CNN interview.

For me, the facts have told me that I need to cut back. We’ll see if iOS 12 this fall prompts millions of others to do the same.

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