A social conscience for the tech industry: Can companies help users cultivate healthier relationships with apps and devices?

The Time Well Spent movement is challenging tech companies to care about more than just the swipes and clicks

By Ellen Lee
Published February 18, 2017 12:00PM (EST)
  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-112072p1.html'>Kostenko Maxim</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Kostenko Maxim via Shutterstock)

We touch our smartphones 2,617 times a day. We binge watch shows such as “Orphan Black,” finishing an entire season in a single week. Teenagers stay up late into the night, messaging their friends, then wake up exhausted the next morning. Confessed a 15-year-old boy in a New York Times article, “Sometimes I look up and it’s 3 a.m. and I’m watching a video of a giraffe eating a steak. And I wonder, ‘How did I get here?’”

We’re hooked on technology — and not necessarily in a healthy way. So what can be done?

For an emerging cohort in the technology industry, the response is to call on tech companies to rethink how they go about designing their games, apps, social media, email and other products. Dubbed “Time Well Spent,” and led by former Googler Tristan Harris, the movement challenges tech companies to care about more than just the number of swipes their app generates or clicks a link picks up. Call it a social conscience for the tech industry. Asked Joe Edelman, one of the movement’s leaders who coined the “time well spent” concept: “What would technology look like if it helped us do the things we want to do versus what we don’t want to do?”

The movement comes at a critical time in the tech industry. Over the past decade, the advent of smartphones, social media and other technology has reshaped how we consume media, with the goal of keeping us engaged as much as possible. But the increasing amount of time we spend glued to our screens has raised concerns, particularly about teens and tweens, whose brains are still developing and who are still working on impulse control, said Delany Ruston, a primary care physician, parent of two teenagers and the creator of a documentary about teenagers and technology called “Screenagers.” Recent research has already found, for instance, that teens who stay up late to text their friends aren’t getting enough sleep and therefore do not perform as well in school.

“A lot of teens will spend excessive amounts of time on their screen to the detriment of sleeping, their grades, their relationships and their physical health,” she said. “Those are the big picture risks that come from massive screen time use.”

Though the movement isn’t aimed at a particular demographic, it is raising poignant questions about teens and tween behavior. More and more teens are acquiring their own smartphones, with close to three-quarters of teens aged 12 to 17 expected to own a smartphone this year, according to eMarketer. Teens are spending almost nine hours a day — and tweens almost six hours a day — to use media, from texting to watching videos. And half of teens surveyed by Common Sense Media said that they were “addicted” to technology — all of which has drawn fears that teenagers are becoming less able to focus, empathize with their peers or make deeper connections.

“I think this conversation is very pertinent to teenagers,” said Max Stossel, another leader of the movement. “Will our kids grow up in a world where technology will suck us in or where technology will enhance our lives? It’s an important thing to focus on.”

So far, the response has been to encourage teens — and everyone else — to regulate their use of technology on their own, from being more mindful to going on tech diets and deploying software to block excessive internet surfing. But the technology industry has reached a reflective moment, said Edelman, the former chief technology officer of Couchsurfing. “There is this chance to do it differently,” he said.

Until recently, tech companies sought to maximize how much time consumers spent using their apps, playing their games or interacting with their websites. More time spent usually meant more opportunities for a tech company to make more money. In the process, engineers developed tactics to keep consumers engaged for as long as possible. Consider, for instance, how video players such as Netflix and YouTube automatically suggest a new video for you to watch after one ends — or how you can swipe through a continuous stream of dating profiles on Tinder. The result is that our apps, social media, email and so forth act like a slot machine, rewarding us over and over again.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” says Natasha Dow Schull, a media, culture and communication professor at New York University and the author of “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.” Unlike gambling, “there is no money being spent, but we don’t focus enough on time spent as one of the costs.”

Teens are especially susceptible, Ruston added. “The teenage brain has the largest reward center [out of] any time of life,” she said. “Teenagers are highly enticed by the all the different activities they can do on the screen.”

Tech companies didn’t set out intentionally to harm consumers, Stossel said. Stossel, in fact, spent two years at a tech startup brainstorming ways to keep people using an app. He reached a turning point when he realized that what consumers wanted wasn’t the same as what tech companies such as his were aiming to create.

Inspired by a meeting with Harris, Stossel penned the poem “This Panda is Dancing” and produced a YouTube video about it. Among its lines: “I need to sleep but you made me want this more/ This is not what I consciously signed up for/ When I hit play on one episode six hours ago.”

Just as the organic food movement has shifted the food people buy and the way it is produced, the Time Well Spent movement hopes to spark consumers and tech companies alike into stepping back and thinking of ways to build a better, richer relationship between consumers and technology. This is encouraging tech companies to adopt new design principles and consider different factors for gauging the success of their products. Can they measure the quality of the time that consumers spend using them versus the quantity of time spent? Can they present options that encourage users to make better choices? The movement is also calling upon those in the technology industry to help research and brainstorm about just how new technology should operate, considering fresh business models and media experiences.

The movement doesn’t want to stop consumers from using technology or to call out any one kind of technology as “bad,” said Harris. Instead, tech companies have a lot of control, not to mention data about their users, when it comes to product designing. Even the littlest tweaks can make a difference.

Tech companies are paying attention. Both Edelman and Harris have made presentations to engineers at Facebook, Google and elsewhere. Startups such as Hinge have joined the movement and vowed to incorporate ethics into their design process. (Producer of dating app, Hinge introduced a redesigned app last year that doesn’t involve swiping through profiles.) And these companies are trying to figure things out and make changes. “No one knows what a good ecosystem looks like,” Edelman said. “But we can’t go back. So the work is articulating what would be good, and making sure people know.”

Will things change? Companies whose audiences are primarily children and teens tend to come under more scrutiny, since their users are more vulnerable, said Schull. But most likely what will push tech companies to change is to show them how their business interests align with the need to better design their technology so as to not completely burn out their users, especially the youngest ones.

“It’s ultimately in their long term interests to not tap them out,” she said. “You want to keep them using technology in a moderate way, so they don’t feel depleted. That will keep them coming back.”

Then again, today’s teens may have different ideas. As digital natives, they have always had a smartphone or tablet at their fingertips. Sure, people watch 10 billion videos a day via Snapchat. But technology also provides a way for teens to check in with one another and experiment with expressing themselves — something they did long before even the advent of Snapchat and other technology. Take Camden Allard, a 17-year-old in Seattle, Washington. He estimated he opens Snapchat, oh, “hundreds of times a day.”

“I feel like it’s a big amount of time that I’m on it but I don’t feel like I’m missing the world around me,” he said. “It’s a way of keeping in touch with people around you.”

Ellen Lee

Ellen Lee is a contributing writer to Common Sense News, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on children and family issues. Learn more at commonsense.org/news.


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