Want to hear something scary? The average smartphone user touches their phone more than 2,600 times per day.
Apps from Facebook and Alphabet commanded 43% of those daily taps and swipes, according to a 2016 study from the research firm Dscout. Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Youtube and Chrome consumed a lion's share of our attention, with Facebook as the single most-tapped app by a wide margin.
Tech firms have gotten us all hooked on their gadgets and apps. Now they're coming up with ways to help users dial it back -- at least in theory.
At WWDC, Apple announced a slate of new features in iOS12, which included a number of tools to help iPhone users understand and manage how much time they're spending on their phones. Those features include Do Not Disturb, which suspends notifications for a set period of time, suggestions from Siri on turning off notifications that you don't need; Screen Time, an activity log summarizing how much time you spend in apps; and App Limits, a means of allotting budgets for app use. Enhanced parental controls are also coming in iOS12, allowing parents to set budgets for phone use.
"[Apps] beg us to use our phone when we really should be occupying ourselves with something else, they send us flurries of notifications, trying to draw us in for fear of missing out, and for some of us it's become such a habit that we might not even recognize just how distracted we've become," said Apple's SVP of engineering Craig Federighi at WWDC.
That idea has taken on various monikers: At Apple it was dubbed Digital Health; at Google, it's Digital Wellbeing; at Facebook, it's Time Well Spent, borrowed from the name of a nonprofit that combats digital addiction.
Google's Digital Wellbeing efforts also take the form of mobile operating system update, called Android P, coming out later this year. Much like the iOS12 features, Android P will include a dashboard that lets you see your app usage, a 'do not disturb' feature, and ways to impose app usage limits on yourself and your kids. As noted by The Verge, which previewed the OS, the features are more aggressive and can actually temporarily lock you out of an app once you've reached your limit: "We are the OS, and we feel like we need to be doing more around this area. We feel like we have a responsibility to do more," Sameer Samat, Android's VP of product management, told The Verge.
Facebook, the company perhaps most often blamed for creating a generation of social media junkies, is following suit with its own usage log called Your Time on Facebook, which is currently being tested within Facebook's Android app.
The new tools reflect a growing consensus among researchers and health advocates that constant screen time can be damaging, for minors in particular. A number of studies have linked social media use with depression, anxiety and other ills, and even some of Facebook's early stakeholders have even decried its addictive properties: "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," said investor Chamath Palihapitiya, who also led user growth at Facebook until 2011, at an event in 2017.
"It's a confluence of circumstances that have led to the conversations we're having now," said Colby Zintl of Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that promotes safe use of technology and media. "I think tech companies are realizing that the libertarian mindset can have consequences that will eventually hurt their business, even if it isn't right now."
Despite the seemingly broad consensus on the issue, whether phone addicts will actually use the features is another question entirely. None of the features are public as of yet, and it's likely that many won't be swayed: 68% of those in the Dscout study said that while they found the results "shocking," they probably wouldn't change their habits.
"We have to take a 'wait and see' approach, but we're certainly optimistic," Zintl said.