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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
screen time

Now you can finally limit how often you use apps on your phone

Here’s how to use Screen Time if you’re an iOS user.

Apple Support / YouTube

IT’S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to remember a time when mobile phones didn’t have a major role in our lives. They play a big role in how we work, rest and play these days.

But while there are many positives to smartphones – for example, you could run a business with one – there are many negatives too. For starters, they’re far too easy to use. Picking up your phone multiple times an hour is a reflexive action now. You don’t even have to think about it. 

The reason why we are pulled back to the phone time and time again is the proliferation of apps. Apps for social media use, apps for gaming, apps for setting alarms, apps for noting how often you feed your baby, apps for meditating.

App creators and tech companies want us to keep using phones and apps. That is, after all, their business. Which is why it’s particularly interesting that in its latest iOS update, Apple introduced a feature called Screen Time.

Screen Time not only tells you the (for me, anyway) shocking number of hours you spend on your phone, down to how many times you pick it up an hour, but also enables you to cut down on the amount of time you use certain apps.

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Screen Time lets you set time limits for both types of apps – social media, gaming, productivity, etc – and individual apps. You can set any amount of minutes you like, and you can even give yourself different limits depending on the days. You can set limits for specific apps by clicking on that individual app name within the Screen Time section.

When you reach your time limit, an icon appears under the app to let you know that it is ‘locked’. If you’re looking at the app at the time, you get a notification telling you when you have five minutes left. When that’s over, a screen appears to tell you your time is up (but you can get a 15 minute reminder so that you can keep clicking away for another 15 minutes).

You can also set up a passcode to be used with the app timers, which you’ll need to enter if you want to extend the time limit.

If you want to take things a step forward, there’s a new tool called Downtime. This means that you won’t be able to access any apps except for a few that you need to use.

You can access all of this through Settings – Screen Time is just below Do Not Disturb.

‘It’s easy for people to be cynical’

Tech commentator Andy O’Donoghue tells he sees Screen Time as a positive step. “I think Apple are being less aggressive in their approach than Google are in digital wellbeing,” he says. 

There’s obviously a general cognisance that this is an important conversation, and I know it’s easy for people to be cynical, because the more devices we buy the more time we spend on them, the more profit tech companies are likely to make. However, ultimately I think Apple and Google are doing the right thing and hopefully for the right reasons.

He notes that Facebook and Instagram have been making similar moves regarding user wellbeing. “People used to joke that Instagram was the cure to boredom – but addiction isn’t a cure to boredom,” says O’Donoghue.

He says that in Ireland, the average person uses their phone 57 times a day, while in the US that figure is 80. “But millennials look at their phone perhaps as much as 150 times a day,” he says. “They are the people who will benefit most from [initiatives like Screen Time].”

Parents and adults have probably been bad role models regarding phone use over the last few years, says O’Donoghue. But now, they can show young people how to cut down on their phone time. 

“There is plenty of research about the effect screens have, particularly on young brains going to sleep,” says O’Donoghue. “That impact has to be considered because it means potentially late nights, it means drowsiness in school the next day – all these things have a societal effect. Then there are things we haven’t really started to consider yet, for example the potential for long time impact such as carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury.”

We simply don’t know the long term negative effects of phone use. 

But will Screen Time be a flash in the pan or a way to radically alter how we interact with our phones? 

“I think it will start to trickle down through public consciousness,” says O’Donoghue. The auditing aspect of it might help, he says (Apple gives you a Screen Time report every week, so you can see if your habits change).

“We are now gamifying the audit process. Hopefully that might work in a really good inverse way – people might brag about cutting their usage.”

It’s somewhat surprising to see a company like Apple actually helping users to cut down on phone use, and putting that power into our hands. But it’s clever too – it builds brand loyalty and makes us believe the company is doing something positive for us. And it might have long-term effects we can’t even imagine.

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