Why Google’s Plan for Limiting Screen Time on Android Phones Could Be the Best Approach Yet

Google's Digital Wellbeing dashboard displays information about your usage habits and offers features to help manage your time on your smartphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ViewApart/iStock, Google.

Tech companies keep talking about digital well-being lately. The idea is to ensure that smartphone and app users aren’t just whiling away their hours in a tapping, scrolling stupor, and that the time spent on their digital devices is purposeful—and lasts only as long as necessary. At its annual developer conference in June, Apple announced a feature addressing this called Screen Time. It allows iOS users to monitor how much time they spend in each app they open as well as set daily limits on app usage. Since then, individual apps such as Facebook and Instagram have introduced similar features: an activity dashboard where you can see your time spent in the app as a chart and do things like set time limits or snooze notifications to gain a healthier balance over your digital life. The most recent attempt at addressing the issue came with the launch of Android 9 Pie this week. Google’s digital health initiative, simply called Digital Wellbeing, looks like it could be the best approach so far.

Over the past few years, research has shown that our smartphone usage is becoming increasingly problematic. “Phone addiction” has raised mental health concerns: For example, one study found that adolescents who spend more time with screens are more likely to experience mental health issues including depression and increased suicide risk. In January, a pair of Apple shareholders asked Apple to investigate the issue of smartphone addiction in children. One poll found that 50 percent of teens feel addicted to their phones. The growing body of research has pushed OS makers and app makers to take steps to curb smartphone obsession.

While Apple and Facebook’s options focus on giving the user more information and transparency about their smartphone use, Google is taking a slightly different approach. Google’s Digital Wellbeing, currently in beta, gives you a glimpse of your smartphone usage as a circular graph, showing you the total time you’ve spent on your handset in the center and colored arcs denoting how you’ve divided your time between apps. Below, you can see how many times you’ve unlocked your phone that day and how many notifications you’ve received. These stats are similar to what other platforms offer, but Google’s aim isn’t just to give you tools to better manage your smartphone time—it’s to make your phone interactions quicker.

In an interview with Android Central, Android user experience manager E.K. Chung explained that Android 9 is about more than just limiting your time in specific apps. Pie’s interface “is all about high efficiency, and making your interaction with your device more meaningful and efficient so that you can get things done and then get back to what’s really meaningful in your life,” Chung said.

A key way Google is accomplishing this is through Android P’s navigation. Similar to the iPhone X, the new Android OS relies heavily on gestures rather than on on-screen home and back buttons. One of the goals of this switch is to “subtract, combine, prioritize, and clarify” various Android functions and navigations so that the system is simpler and more approachable. For those used to the old three-button navigation with a back button, home button, and app switcher accessible at the bottom of the screen, there may be a slight learning curve. In the end, it should save time, though. One change was to make the app drawer a less used component. Instead of being accessed with a button on the phone’s home screen, you access it by swiping up from the bottom of the screen twice. In its user research, Google found that 60 percent of the time, the app a user was searching for was found in the first swipe, which offers shortcuts to the five most recently used apps—the new multitasking screen.

Early feedback from those who’ve tried the betas of both Google’s Digital Wellbeing and Apple’s Screen Time say that the former is “a bit more thoughtful and elegant,” although it’s still early days for both. As more phones gain the ability to upgrade to Android P—it’s only on Pixel phones for now—it’ll likely become clear whether these interface tweaks make a significant impact on how often users open and stare at their phone screens. After years of largely ignoring the issue, it’s a great step that both app makers and OS makers are now taking the idea of digital health and smartphone addiction seriously.