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Digital Overload: Solutions from an unlikely source

by Simon Apfel

Technology is consuming our every waking moment. And now our sleeping ones too.

Our days seem to be nothing more than a succession of screens – smartphone, laptop, tablet, TV. And as much as we want to, as much as we feel we should, we can’t seem to tear ourselves away.

Of course, Shabbat, the Jewish Day of Rest, offers us a 25-hour respite from exactly that. Structured screen-free time, allowing us to shift our gaze to the finer things in life: our relationships, our inner lives, good food and good sleep. A time to walk, play, disconnect.

Shabbat is a chance to escape the Matrix, and experience reality in analogue.

But for the rest of the week, says tech journalist, Chaim Gartenberg, writing in the Verge, a solution to the problem is emerging from an unlikely place – the actual source of the problem.

…Between Google’s “Digital Wellbeing” and Apple’s “Screen Time,” the two biggest smartphone developers are taking some time to discourage smartphone overuse.


On the surface, the two companies are taking very similar approaches with the tools they’re offering to present information to users. Apple and Google are both adding new dashboards, with options for more zoomed-out perspectives on how you’re spending your time, along with more granular views of how often you’re using individual apps — down to the minute. There’s data on how many notifications you’ve received, where they’re coming from, and breakdowns of when you’re actually on your phone.


The biggest addition is the chance to set self-imposed time limits for apps on your phone. It’s here where the main divergence between the two approaches is.

Apple is relatively loose about how strict it takes its limits. It offers users the option to ignore the pop-up and continue using the app. (Although the company said it will continue to remind you that you’ve gone over your daily limit.) Apple may be giving you the information and the opportunity to put your phone down, but it’s still up to you to decide whether or not to listen.


Google, on the other hand, seems to be far more aggressive in enforcing its limits — at least in the initial developer beta. It’s going as far as to gray out the app icon on your home screen, and it won’t let you “unpause” the app unless you go back into the dashboard app and manually remove the limit. It’s still early on, so we’ll have to see whether Apple’s more laissez-faire or Google’s stricter strategy turns out to be more effective.

Apple also wants to push users to think about how they make their choices. The company will actively deliver weekly reports to users (ironically, through notifications), while Google will offer the information through the dashboard, but users will have to seek it out themselves.


Apple also goes a step further than Google when it comes to parental controls. While Google’s usage dashboard and limits seem primarily designed for users to limit their own behavior, Apple’s will let parents remotely manage their kid’s usage from their own devices.


Apple’s parental control options are actually stricter than what it seems users can implement for themselves as adults. App limits through parental controls have the option to be set as hard limits, so kids will be forced to, say, stop playing Fortnite entirely, or they will have to request additional time from a parent to keep playing. Google does offer a separate app called Family Link that can do many of the same time-monitoring and app-blocking tricks, but it’s a separate app that parents have to go out of their way to install and enable, not something that’s built into the OS.

Google and Apple are both updating their Do Not Disturb and notification features to put more options back in the hands of users, too. Apple is finally taking a page from Google’s book by grouping notifications, and both operating systems will now offer prompts to users directly from the pop-up to manage notifications on an app-by-app basis.

While Apple is expanding the scope of Do Not Disturb to include location-based or event-based triggers (like snoozing notifications while you’re in a museum or at your friend’s party), Google is making its version more powerful. DND mode will completely hide all notifications until you turn it off.


Overall, one could probably say that Google is taking a bit more of a brute force approach with its Digital Wellbeing program, whereas Apple’s approach is a bit more tilted toward simply supplying information to the user so they can make better decisions themselves (if they choose). Both are beta pieces of software, so there’s a very real chance that Apple and Google may make huge changes to how these features work by the time they’re released in the fall.


At the end of the day, Apple and Google are taking some real, introspective strides here when it comes to giving users information about how they use their phones. And yes, there are certainly cynics who may feel that Apple and Google’s efforts are disingenuous — after all, these companies have always wanted to ensure that users, hardware sales, and, most importantly, profits go up ahead of anything else. And without seeing the changes brought about by actually using these new services, it’s hard to say whether or not either company has done enough.

But at least Google and Apple are starting to think about the problem. Even if these features don’t end up being the ultimate answer to the increasing concern that smartphones are taking over our lives, it’s the beginning of a conversation that seems long overdue. And that may ultimately end up being the biggest step forward in the long run.


The Verge

How do Apple’s Screen Time and Google Digital Wellbeing stack up?

Simon Apfel

Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.

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