If you wear a fitness tracking device such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch chances are you’re moving more (even if it’s just waving your arm to rack up your daily step count like I used to do), sitting less and making choices that are better for your overall health. Same goes for apps like My Fitness Pal and others that help you count calories, nutrients and contribute to a healthier lifestyle by essentially saying “Put down the Krispy Kreme and eat this apple instead”. The basic principle is that tracking consumption leads to more awareness which leads to better choices. Most of the time.
With the introduction of Screen Time reporting for iPhone users (it’s Digital Wellbeing for Android) we can now see hard data that tells us just how much time we are spending looking at our phones. The numbers are higher than we’d like to think (because if we had a grip on how much phone time we actually used there would be no need for apps that tracked our usage in the first place.)
As a parent of teens I pay a lot of attention to screen time, including TV, laptops, video games. But mainly phone usage. To be a parent today is to have the impossible burden of managing the omnipresent screen-beast and to be made to feel guilty when we struggle to reign that beast in. This task is made even more challenging by the fact that the internet is as much a resource for research, education, connectivity and other beneficial things as it is for mindless drivel, trolls and dangerously false information.
Reluctantly, my kids have agreed to a screen time schedule that I can live with and which gives them ample time to see what they need to see and play what they want to play. In the interest of full disclosure, they don’t self-regulate and often I am the one who has to watch the clock and let them know that it’s time for a break. My reminders are met with “After this video” or “When this game is finished” and depending on my energy level that day, they may or may not be granted their request.
So I’m watching them, but who’s watching me? I’ll tell you who: my Screen Time report.
I’m not a phone addict. My iPhone serves many functions but entertaining me is not one of them. On the rare occasion that I leave the house phoneless I feel relief, as if we’ve rolled back the clock 15 years and I can actually be out doing one thing at a time instead of multitasking which, for me, is a surefire way of ensuring that nothing gets done right. In fact, I never thought I had a “phone problem” until the Screen Time notifications started popping up on my home screen, judging me for the average 5.5 hours I used it every day.
A few weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times by a tech journalist who felt that he had what he referred to as a “phone problem”. Looking to break his habit, he sought help from an industry professional who’d written a book about how to have a better relationship with your phone. Both he and the author were “horrified” that his Screen Time report showed that his pickups (times he entered his password) were around 101 per day and time spent on his phone averaged 5.5 hours daily. Although my pickups clock in at less than half of his, the amount of time we spend on our phones is the same, which according to the article is more than double the time of the average American. So why am I not horrified by what my report says?
My phone time, while the same in quantity, bears little resemblance to his.
His usage consisted largely of social media, games and an endless stream of news outlets and, according to his wife, he could not carry on a normal conversation without his eyeballs being glued to his screen. I have no games, no news or entertainment and one social media app.
The ‘more than double that of the average American” statistic was disturbing, as was intended to be, until I considered that I live in London where the average house price is far more than double that of the average American house price and the rate of obesity is less than half of the average across the entire USA. Meaning, the statistic doesn’t compare like for like or factor in geography, lifestyle or demographics among other important differences.
I manage a dynamic household and, like most people in my life, I do this using the many tools available to me on my iPhone. My social media engagement is confined to Instagram and is largely for the purposes of connecting with other content creators and reaching an audience for my writing. I’m not scrolling or searching. I don’t know what the “correct” amount of time is to be interacting with my phone, but like I tell my kids when they’re doing homework, it’ll take as long as it takes.
You don’t know my life, Screen Time. You don’t know it at all.
Your bar graph with its strips of blue, turquoise and orange, tries to shame me into thinking that I’m some sort of social media addict by recording WhatsApp usage as “social networking”. It is not. WhatsApp is a way of life.
Nothing escapes the Big Brother-like scrutiny of Screen Time. Podcasts on Spotify, ordering on Amazon, scanning documents, paying for parking, navigating with Waze, checking the homework app for my kids (why is this on a screen?? They should have to write it down in a tiny spiral notebook like I did), tracking the whereabouts of an Uber when one of my kids is the passenger, ordering food, contributing to a Just Giving campaign—these are all converted into the big fat finger that Screen Time points at me. Even checking my Screen Time report gets logged as Screen Time. (Insert head-exploding emoji here).
And all of that before I have to sift through, process and take action on what feels like an endless stream of emails that come in from my kids’ schools. What started out as an efficient, environmentally friendly way to communicate with parents has turned into an onslaught of too much information. It’s not just me. When I so much as touch on this subject with almost any parent, their immediate reaction is a frustrated “I know, right?” as their eyes well up. We are all drowning in emails.
If I sent the schools as many emails as I receive from them I’m sure there would be a photo of me posted in their offices with darts stuck in my eyeballs.
Sorting through these emails to play my favorite game of Delete, Save or Reply would be listed in my Screen Time report under “Productivity” and the irony of that is not lost on me.
You’re stressing me out, Screen Time, and I’m going to turn off your notifications as soon as I figure out how to do that. Now excuse me while I go do a 10-minute guided mediation on my Calm app; go ahead and log that time in whatever category you want to. I’ll never know because I’m not checking your reports anymore.