Google’s Digital Wellbeing app found its way onto my phone yesterday, and it’s an interesting new app. Unlike most apps, which fight to hold your attention as long as they can, Wellbeing is all about getting you off of your phone. For a company that amassed its fortune on clicks and views, this seems counter-intuitive. What exactly does Wellbeing offer, and can it actually help you spend less time on your phone?
Let’s look at the problem that Wellbeing tries to solve. Smartphone addiction is a known phenomena with direct links to feelings of anxiety and social disconnection. Every minute we spend away from our phones is a minute not knowing what our friends are up to, what events are going on around us, and what adorable animal pictures were uploaded to Reddit today. This fear of missing out (FOMO) can cause actual stress, and in some studies, leads to sleep deprivation and negative emotionality.
For many of us, the temptation to pick up our phones and “check in” is always present no matter what we’re doing. For me personally, checking Facebook before bed is a nightly ritual akin to brushing my teeth. On an average day, I spend more time staring at my phone than I do exercising, socializing, or being creative, and to me that feels like a chunk of my day that’s being wasted on nothing. I don’t need to check Facebook every few hours, but it’s become such a regular pattern in my day-to-day life that not doing it feels off.
What Exactly is Wellbeing?
Wellbeing is an app for tracking the amount of time you spend on your phone. It measures details like:
- How much time you spend looking at your screen
- How often you unlock your phone
- How often you open certain apps
- How many notifications you receive
As a bonus, Wellbeing can also control your phone in ways that discourage or outright prevent you from spending too much time on it. For example, the Wind Down feature lets you set a period of time during which your screen turns grayscale and your phone enters Do Not Disturb mode. It’s a relatively benign change, but it’s enough to remind you that it’s time to do something else.
Wellbeing includes more heavy-handed features, such as the ability to set per-app usage timers. The app becomes disabled once the timer expires and can’t be reopened until either midnight (when the timer resets), or you delete the timer yourself.
Just Five More Minutes
Wellbeing isn’t so much a solution as it is an aid. It’s not meant to fix smartphone addiction, but to help reduce your on-screen time by gently prodding you every now and then. While you could use it to force you off your phone, I feel its best use is as a motivational tool. Ultimately, it’s up to you to recognize when you’re spending too much time on your phone and to turn the screen off.
Wellbeing is a strange app because of where it came from. The concept of “digital health” appears to be an emerging trend among tech companies like Google and Apple as an attempt to show that they care about their users. For the amount of time, money, and expertise that Google specifically has put into getting us addicted to our devices, attempts like this to prioritize the user’s interests just feels incredibly hollow. At the end of the day, they still want you to buy and use their phones. That being said, Wellbeing is still a useful app and, for me at least, serves its purpose as a reminder to put the phone down and focus on what’s important.
You can check out the Digital Wellbeing app if you have a Pixel, Android One, or Essential phone running Android 9.