Google has some ideas to make your phone a little more humane.
On Tuesday, it introduced features for its coming Android P operating system designed to help consumers and parents curb smartphone addiction and detox from our beloved glowing screens.
The features, unveiled at Google’s I/O developer conference in Silicon Valley, are the latest sign tech companies are beginning to tackle the unintended psychological and social consequences of their products. Samsung earlier this year launched an app called Thrive that lets you humblebrag about not being online by automatically replying to texts while you’re taking a break. Apple is expected to address some of these issues in an update to the iPhone iOS software at its Worldwide Developers Conference in June.
The new Android features, which probably won’t come as an update to your phone for months, are focused on making it easier to activate no-distraction modes and get feedback about how we’re using our phones. Among the highlights:
“Wind down” mode — When it’s getting time for you to go to bed, your phone will now fade to gray. The phone will still function, but it’s a visual reminder to put the darn thing down — not to mention, apps become a lot less interesting without color. You set the bedtime.
Verdict: Some techie cool kids manually switch their phones to gray as a way to avoid distraction, but making it automatic is much more effective.
Turn your phone face down to “shush” — Flipping your phone onto its face will turn on “do not disturb” mode, which silences calls, buzzes and other visual notifications. (You can add certain VIP contacts that still break through.) That seems way easier than activating a phone setting, though it’s not clear how a phone might get confused when it’s in your pocket or bag.
Verdict: Why haven’t phones had this from the beginning? But remember: It’s still not polite to put your phone on the dinner table.
“Time spent” dashboard — Android P’s system software will come with a dashboard that’s like a calorie counter for your digital life. It shows you many times you’ve unlocked your phone, how much time you spend looking at it, as well as a breakdown on how much time you spend with each app. You can also set time limits for apps, after which their app icons will appear gray on your screen (but still work).
Verdict: Do you really want to know how much time you’re wasting on Instagram? This data might horrify you, but knowing is the first step to doing something.
Watch your kids — An app called Family Link will allow parents to control their kids’ devices. Parents will be able to see how often Junior uses certain apps, approve or block app downloads, set screen time limits, and when it comes to it, remotely lock devices.
Verdict: It’s a pint-size YouTube addict’s worst nightmare. Amazon has had similar functions in its children’s Fire tablets for a few years. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The changes are welcome, but there’s more the tech companies could do, especially given how much data they collect about us. The new Android features don’t much help for distracted walkers (now a menace in many cities) or to curb the sea of excess notifications from apps hungry for attention. There’s also a wider social ill: Why do friends and bosses expect us to always be online, ready to reply at a moment’s notice?
Google said the Android update are part of a broader new digital well-being initiative that’s just beginning. That includes changes to a range of products such as YouTube, which will now remind you to take breaks.
To get Google’s new features, you’re going to need an phone running Android P. That’s not likely to come with an update to most phones for some time. But if you just can’t wait (or have a spare phone), you can download a beta version today on phones including the Google Pixel, OnePlus 6, Essential PH‑1 and others.