Even as people have embraced the smartphone as one of the most powerful tech products, they are keeping a wary eye on the addictiveness of turning on the device to check for social media updates, read websites and play games. Some studies have tied extended screen time to distraction in classrooms, sleep deprivation and depression.
I, for one, probably have a problem with compulsively picking up my phone. So when Apple announced new software to help people restrict the amount of time they spend on iPhones, I knew I had to test it on myself. I also wanted to try it on a “screenager,” a teenager who is addicted to screens — exactly the kind of person generating so much concern.
Just one problem: I don’t have a child, so I needed to borrow one. Fortunately, my editor gleefully volunteered her 14-year-old, Sophie, to be a test subject. So last month, I lent Sophie an iPhone X loaded with an unfinished version of iOS 12, Apple’s new operating system, that included the Screen Time feature, which is set for release this fall. We set up the account so that I was a parent, with the ability to set limits, and she was my child.
First, a primer on how Screen Time works. The feature, which lives inside the iPhone’s settings, shows a dashboard of data about your iPhone use. You can look at your stats for the day or week, including the amount of time you spent on specific apps and on the phone over all. Inside the dashboard, you can create time limits for specific apps or categories of apps, like social networking or games. When you run out of time with an app, it locks you out.
Over the last three weeks, I studied Sophie’s phone use patterns along with mine. After determining the apps that we spent extraordinary amounts of time on — Sophie spent hours each day chatting with friends on Snapchat, and I wasted too much of my life reading Twitter — I placed a few time limits on each of us.
Here’s how that turned out. During Week 2, when she was trying to withdraw from her phone, strange things started happening to Sophie. After the screenager first used up all her time on Snapchat on a Tuesday, she told her mother that she felt “triggered” (which I would learn is slang for feeling annoyed or incensed). She later told me that she had realized she would open her phone and just stare blankly at the app icons to avoid using up her limit on Snapchat.
“It was just a pattern for me — to open my phone and I would have nowhere to go,” she said. “I was just looking at a screen. It was kind of weird, so I’m trying not to do that.”
But in the end, the results were satisfying. Sophie’s average daily phone use plummeted by about half, from over six hours during Week 1 to about three hours and four minutes during Week 3. My average phone use decreased 15 minutes a day, to about three and a half hours. I still think we spend too much time on our phones, but Sophie’s progress made this faux parent proud (and ashamed of himself).
These early results should be welcome news to people who are growing increasingly concerned about long-term addiction to smartphones. There have been other ways to limit use, including apps like Moments, which have many of the same features as Screen Time. But none of them have been embedded into a phone like Apple’s new software.
Here’s a weekly diary on how Screen Time altered our phone use.Week 1
Sophie and I had a rough start with the experiment because of technical difficulties. Apple’s iOS 12 is still in beta, meaning an unfinished version of the software system is being tested by app developers and early adopters — and we ran into major bugs.
For most of the first week, a bug prevented me from seeing Sophie’s Screen Time statistics. But at the end of the week, after Apple released a software fix, her weekly stats appeared. They revealed that she had used her phone for six hours and seven minutes a day on average over the week. I could also see that Sophie was sometimes sneaking glances at her iPhone past midnight, when she was supposed to be asleep.
After I shared the data with my editor, she bombarded Sophie with a flurry of disapproving text messages and fiery emoji.
Meanwhile, my stats showed that I had used my phone for three hours and 46 minutes a day on average over the week. The majority of my time was spent using the Twitter app Tweetbot, and a significant amount was wasted playing Zynga Poker.
With Screen Time now working properly, I placed limits for both Sophie and myself. For her, I set a 30-minute limit on gaming and a 60-minute limit on social networking. To help her sleep, I also turned on Downtime, a setting that disables most parts of the phone for a set time, from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
I gave myself the same one-hour limit for social networking apps. But instead of setting a limit for games, I opted to nip my Zynga Poker addiction in the bud by deleting the game and kissing my dreams of being a fake-money billionaire goodbye.Week 2
Even though Sophie was initially incensed about being locked out of Snapchat after an hour, she eventually came around to enjoying the limit.
In fact, she asked for more limits. She said she was wasting too much time reading articles on the Safari browser, so she asked for a 90-minute limit there. She also requested that I keep all the limits on until she finished the monthlong summer camp she was just beginning.
I happily obliged. “I raised her so well,” I told my editor.
As for me, I realized that when I ran into my limit on Twitter, I would find other ways to stay glued to my phone. I caught myself repeatedly checking my bank account and loading the same news sites over and over.
Sophie’s progress was remarkable. Mine not so much. By the end of that week, she managed to cut her average phone use to four hours and 44 minutes a day, down 23 percent from the previous week. (I’m sure the trauma from her mother’s outburst of emoji had something to do with it.)
My average screen use barely decreased — to about three and a half hours a day.Week 3
At the beginning of the third week, phone use continued to steeply decline for Sophie.
On some days that week, Sophie’s phone use was lower than mine. On Tuesday afternoon, her screen time dipped to about two and a half hours, whereas mine had already exceeded three hours.
At this point, I felt pathetic. (If I were young, I might have said I felt “triggered.”) I asked myself: What kind of parent am I if I’m more addicted than my teenage daughter to a smartphone? Who would listen to this degenerate?
When I shared this revelation with Sophie, she chuckled and replied: “You use your phone more than me?”
So for the rest of the week, I kept pushing myself to beat her. I logged out of Twitter after each time I used it in the web browser. I stopped checking my bank account, assuring myself that no more money would magically appear.
It felt similar to competing with friends on Fitbit to see who could accumulate the most steps — the only difference here was that I was trying to win by doing less.
On Friday, my phone use was one hour and 51 minutes. Sophie’s was three hours and 17 minutes. With a fist pump I exclaimed, “What now, Sophie?”
Yet in the end, my average daily use for the week was three hours and 36 minutes. That’s largely because on the Fourth of July and throughout the weekend I spent a total of eight hours driving — with Google Maps running on my phone screen. That doesn’t seem as if it should count against my Screen Time since my eyes were mostly on the road.
But alas, with Sophie averaging just over three hours a day, I lost fair and square.
I checked in with Sophie to ask how she felt after completing the experiment. She said that other than being a bit more focused on homework for her camp and having less interrupted sleep, she felt about the same.
“It’s annoying having my phone but not being able to use it,” she said. “I think it increases my good habits, though.”
She also made one more request: “Could you add another limit for Netflix?”
Brian X. Chen, our lead consumer technology reporter, writes Tech Fix, a column about solving tech-related problems like sluggish Wi-Fi, poor smartphone battery life and the complexity of taking your smartphone abroad. What confuses you or makes you angry about your tech? Send your suggestions for future Tech Fix columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.