Tech giants Apple and Google have released tools built directly into their mobile operating systems to curb excessive smartphone use. Apple calls it Screen Time, which was released on iOS12 in September this year, though Google’s Digital Wellbeing app is yet to be rolled out on Android 9 Pie in South Africa. A similar feature is available on Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro, called Digital Balance, running the latest Android OS.
Both work similarly; you get reports on your usage in colour-coded graphs, such as phone unlocks an hour and day; hours of screen time a day; and individual app usage by time. Apple includes how many notifications you get for each app, with the option to go directly into those settings and change them.
It also further aids in limiting screen time by allowing users to set timers for select apps daily, such as cutting Instagram down to an hour a day, if that is the goal. After the hour is up, the app will not be accessible unless you go back and adjust your settings.
Additionally, “downtime” or “bedtime” settings will turn off notifications and app access at predefined parameters set by you.
Now more than ever, features that help to reduce the time spent on smartphones are needed, and South Africa has reached a significant turning point in the mobile industry: smartphones have overtaken feature phones as the most popular communication device for consumers.
Most-used features include instant messaging, social media and communicating in ways other than traditional voice calls. These findings were released this year by Deloitte in its Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2017.
The report places South Africans among the top users of smartphones globally, with 82% communicating by instant messaging and 74% through social networks, rather than text messages and voice calls.
The company says that perception of overuse has also increased and 61% of survey participants believed they use their mobiles a lot. A substantial 69% of consumers make use of their mobile phone while watching TV, a habit referred to as “second-screening”.
Not surprisingly, the 16 to 34 age bracket believed they were unable to disconnect, and the 35 to 45 age group indicated they were better at controlling their usage.
Jasmin Kooverjee, the principal clinical psychologist at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, says smartphone addiction is a real problem and, because technology has progressed so much, we have become dependent on these devices.
“It is similar to any other addiction because it impacts how you function in everyday life, yet it is different because it is more accepted by society as people don’t truly see it as a problem,” she says.
It becomes excessive when it affects a person’s social and occupational functioning in negative ways, such as not focusing on present company or getting into trouble at the workplace for always being on the phone, says Kooverjee.
“Focusing on present company allows for good interpersonal interaction and healthier relationships. Many children today are struggling to verbally communicate as excessive phone use and disengagement from real interaction with peopleare limiting those basic skills,” she says.
She does not blame apps or services for smartphone addiction, and says it’s about striking a balance. “There is always good and bad with every concept and social media does have its benefits. It’s when an individual uses the technology excessively, disregarding the consequences, then it becomes negative.
“It is a great idea that tech companies have implemented screen monitoring tools and it is much needed, but I think individuals and parents play a vital role in ensuring their use is not excessive,” she says.
“The benefits of these tech tools is that it becomes an automatic monitoring device even if someone is not paying attention to how excessive the use is. However, we must be careful that this does not take away the accountability and responsibility by individuals and parents.”
Kooverjee believes there is a danger of smartphone addiction increasing over time as our modern lifestyles collude with the importance of smart devices, such as schools and universities that use mobile devices for learning.
“As we become more technologically advanced, we are at risk of addiction increasing. We can only combat that if every person individually monitors the use of their well-being linked to it.”