Google researchers examine how to combat smartphone addiction

Tech companies like Apple and Google are working on ways to help us average consumers better manage the time we spend on our digital devices. Apple recently launched the Screen Time tool for the iPhone — and Google released Digital Wellbeing, a similar tool for Android devices and other Google products.

These products, however, seem to be largely built by tech companies who think they know what consumers want or need. A set of researchers from Google, on the other hand, have now conducted a study to see how the average person feels about their phone and technology in general — something that could ultimately help Google better help people manage the time they spend using their tech.

In a blog post detailing the study, the researchers noted that in general, through the advent of social media, email, and news, people overwhelmingly felt a sense of obligation to their devices — something that ended up causing a lot of unnecessary stress. There are a few reasons for this, according to the blog post. First of all, smartphones are built to be engaging — and it’s hard to break the habit of using one. On top of that, people felt an obligation to reply to messages quickly — as though they had to be available at a moment’s notice whenever possible.

The study also noted that while plenty of people look forward to disconnecting, they also want to choose when to disconnect. When it’s forced — like when they run out of battery or forget their phone at home — people feel anxious and worried about missing messages and notifications.

The researchers didn’t just observe this behavior — they also noted a few ways in which tech companies like Google can help users find a better balance. For starters, our phones should be better at facilitating disconnecting from the digital world by giving users information about the time they spend on their devices. Second, smartphones can help reduce the temptation to re-engage with features like app timers. Last but not least, phones can facilitate partial disconnection — by limiting some apps rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach. As mentioned, Google and Apple are already doing this with Digital Wellbeing and Screen Time.

According to the post, Google isn’t done with helping users manage their digital lives. In fact, it’s working on more tools to specifically help parents manage the access their kids have to technology. As the blog post mentions, “a sense of obligation has crept into tech. People want tools to break it. They want to be able to set aside their phone sometimes, not worry about missing anything absolutely urgent, and feel in control of their phone use. We have a responsibility to make that easier—to give people a way to reclaim their time and not feel tied to their devices.”

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