Smartphone Addiction Is Real, and Here Are 3 Ways Apple Could Fight It

Candy Crush. Facebook. Twitter. Texting. It’s easy to see why we’re addicted to smartphones, but it’s much tougher to know what to do about it.

One person who’s given it plenty of thought is Nest Labs founder Tony Fadell, who’s considered one of the fathers of the iPod for his early work on Apple’s music player.

In a recent column for Wired UK, Fadell admits that there’s “no consensus on what constitutes healthy device usage,” and that more research is needed. But he also knows that where Apple goes, others follow, and urges the technology company to take the lead in deploying features to fight addiction.

“Apple is particularly well-placed to tackle this problem, with system-level control across devices,” Fadell writes. The elements for building such guidelines are already in place, he says, and he believes it would actually help Apple.

“I believe Apple will sell more devices if it makes this kind of digital activity tracking available,” Fadell says. “People will feel more comfortable buying them for themselves and their children if they have that extra control.”

It’s worth noting that Fadell’s ideas are all optional. If you still want to be on your smartphone 23 hours out of every 24, that’s your choice. But he thinks Apple needs to be proactive and empower users to understand more about how they use their devices now, “before government regulators decide to step in.”

Here’s what Fadell suggests, plus some real-world counterparts that show the ideas work. And I’ve added some realistic guesses at human reactions, because none of us are perfect.

1. Devices should track usage.

“Our digital consumption data could look like a calendar with our historical activity,” Fadell says. “It should be itemized like a credit-card bill, so people can easily see how much time they spend each day on email, for example, or scrolling through posts.” Such a blunt statement of how we spent (OK, in some cases, “wasted”) our time might be depressing for some of us. But information is powerful, and like the fast-food places that show just how many calories are in a Big Mac, this could guide better choices.

Real-world comparison: A monthly bill showing how much you spent on what.

Likely real-world reaction: “I spent HOW MUCH time playing Crossy Road? Then why aren’t I better at it?”

2. Users can set their own targets.

Building on that usage tracking, Fadell envisions phone users setting their own goals for smartphone time, “like they might have a goal for steps to walk each day.” It’s actually kind of the reverse of a step-tracker app. This time, you want to stay under the desired number.

Real-world comparison: Step-tracker app.

Likely real-world reaction: “Sure I can spend just one hour scrolling mindlessly through Twitter. Uh, maybe two hours. OK, three, but that’s IT. Well, wait, I get a cheat day when there’s a really good meme. Or on Oscar night. Also during the playoffs, but only if my team’s in contention. Or my second-favorite team…”

3. Add modes that limit distraction.

Fadell says, “Apple could also let users set their device to a ‘listen-only’ or ‘read-only’ mode, without having to crawl through a settings menu, so that you can enjoy reading an e-book without a constant buzz of notifications.” Sure, there are ways to do this now, but a simpler on-off switch would make it more practical to actually use.

Real-world comparison: Theater mode on Apple Watch.

Likely real-world reaction:
For a good book: “Wow, why don’t I read more often? This is great! Where’s my library card? I need to get the whole series by this author”
For a boring book: “Uh, what if someone’s trying to text that my house is on fire, or I forgot an appointment at the White House, or my sister’s wedding is today? I’d better turn off that no-distraction mode juuuuuuust in case.”

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