‘Digital wellness’ tools highlight phone dependence, but are we any closer to change?

We’ve all been there. We unlock our phones to swiftly reply to a text message and before we know it we’ve liked 15 photos on Instagram, watched a video of somebody’s Godson graduating on Facebook, become embroiled in a YouTube comments spat and read an article with a title ending in “you’ll never believe what happens next.” The rectangular slabs of metal and glass that are surgically attached to the hands of the entire population have us enslaved under a severe state of nomophobia (the irrational fear of being without your mobile phone). More vice than device, its grip is a tough one to shake — but, if recent news is anything to go by, it seems we’re taking the first step on the road to recovery.   

The Damage
Certainly, cell phones aren’t without their advantages, it’s why there is a market for them in the first place. What began as a simple way to keep in contact has developed into a mechanism for ordering dates, dinner and drivers at the click of a button. But while the phone can deliver a piping-hot meal from UberEats and a ‘Perfect Match’ on one day, it can deliver an earthquake of an anxiety strike and a shatter of confidence by the next. Its ability to screw with our mental health is prodigious, with a high frequency of mobile use having negative effects on our stress levels, self-worth, sleep patterns and anxiety, repercussions which boil down mainly to social media.

It’s ironic that Instagram promotes a glossed, healthy way of living — rife with Instagram models downing green juices and popping supplements — when it’s the very platform that is the most mind-polluting of them all. The desire to outdo others on Facebook has become all-encompassing, while Snapchat’s sneaky ‘streak’ inclusion has users hooked on nugatory achievements. The small pleasures in life are a shell of their former selves, we miss our favourite bands perform because we spend the entire time taking blurred, crappy photos and searching for the perfect filter, our food gets cold because we’re too busy thinking of a witty caption for our hideously topped French toast.

One Step Forward
The damage of cellphone use isn’t exactly groundbreaking news, but perhaps tech giants doing something about it is. Part of the new iPhone and iPad software update, iOS 12, includes a series of features that are designed to keep you off your phone. An updated version of Do Not Disturb disables notifications over certain timeframes, and a new morning wakeup screen offering fewer notifications, ensures you are ‘gently eased into your day.’

Google has similarly awakened to the wellness movement, adding a new feature on Youtube which shows how much time you’ve spent/wasted watching cat videos and conspiracy theories, and a brand-spanking new dashboard for Android devices. It tracks how many minutes (hours) you’re whittling away on the old handheld and limits how long you can spend on certain apps. A Wind Down mode switches the screen to greyscale when bedtime is on the horizon, while the ‘Shush’ gesture automatically puts your phone on Do Not Disturb if you put it face down on a surface.

Two Steps Back
The irony is, of course, that the mobile giants are trying to medicate a disease that they themselves unleashed upon the world. Plus, it’s unlikely their motive is truly morally driven.
It’s not too hard to believe that, when the digital wellness movement popped up on the horizon, tech heads metaphorically shat the bed. Because if people completely abolished the phone altogether, they’d be out of a job — and a well paid one at that. So instead of trying to beat the trend, they jumped on board, producing a slew of new updates under the guise of ‘digital wellness’.

But really, the apps do nothing in the form of true medication. Yes, our app time might now be more limited, but through self-imposed limitations that we can chop and change as we please. Our phones won’t self-combust if our swiping lasts longer than 30 minutes. The ultimate paradox is that for every feature added in a bid to keep us off our phone for longer, a flurry more appear in the update which keep us even more glued — all bigger, brighter and more captivating than before. Memoji — a feature where you can customise humanoid animoji characters and make them look like yourself — is the latest in a pointless slew of new iPhone features that are set to eat into our time. These are set to be downloaded at the same time as the iPhone’s new ‘wellness’ bundle. Ironic, no?

The Real Deal
The truth is, smartphones are — whether we like it or not — the foundation of the modern age. They are being used for everything because we now need them for everything; to keep in contact with loved ones, both near and far, to pay for goods and services, to accept job offers, to be fit for job offers, and to navigate streets. The situation isn’t about abolishing the device completely, but rather, learning how to use it for necessary purposes only.

Don’t hesitate to send a lengthy message to your overseas chum. Absolutely, be sure to scroll through the news in a morning and inform yourself for the day to come, check the weather even. Heck, take a picture (note, singular) of yourself, companions in tow, during a convivial escapade if you feel as though it’s important to capture the memory. But then put the phone down, and leave it there. The solution boils down to not wasting our time on the junk of the internet, and we don’t need an app time limit for that, just a bit of initiative and self-control.

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