I think that screen time software lacks something

DISCLAIMER: It is just an author opinion and sharing of personal experience

We got “Screen time” (iOS 12) and “Digital wellbeing” (Android 9) features in our devices quite recently. Users have started paying more attention to their technology usage. I think that everybody who saw the feature reflected on “Healthiness of devices usage”. And probably somebody started taking some measures to monitor and limit their screen time.

It seems like a straightforward problem. Too much screen time — bad, less time on-screen — good. And beautiful interfaces of screen time limiting apps help us to achieve this nice goal — “spending less time with your screens”. But is it as simple as it sounds?

I was curious about my phone usage as well and I started monitoring my usage too. My phone kept notifying me that my screen time was higher than the previous week! It seemed like a problem, that needs to be solved. I started taking action. My goal was to use my phone less than X hours and Y minutes per Z time period. I tried a lot, really a lot of apps and approaches based on recommendations in books that I read at that time [1][2]. Honestly, they are awesome, even stock OS apps helps to use your smartphone or tablet less. I got my screen time to decrease after some period, and it seemed like a nice achievement. Except a few moments.

I started mentioning that there were cases when I would like to use my phone for strong and useful intention like reading long-read, but I was worried about my potential screen time increase in those periods. Also when I was experimenting with app usage limits for social media I often exceeded my daily limit, but at the same time, I needed social media for some important and mindful intentions. Again I was confused, I had to avoid usage limits I felt wrong about it. Similar moments started occurring more often than I expected. It seemed like I cared more about having less screen time then having mindful and useful time with device.

I started thinking that screen time is good numbers to know, but it is not complete to understand your usage habits. I felt a lack of important dimension in addition to screen time. This dimension was usage intention. There are apps categories in screen time, but apps categories are too wide (Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp are in one category Social, but usage intentions may be too different). You may use the Twitter app because of SMM for your project and you may use Twitter because of boredom, just for doomscroling. And the difference is an intention.

Focus on hours and minutes of screen time data may shift you from usage intentions importance.

I had a small few days experiment in which I was writing manually “why I pick up my smartphone” in a pocket notebook, which I took with my smartphone. I found that having such information shows you a wider picture than just screen time. I started using my phone smarter in the way that I intentionally used my smartphone for concrete purposes and I had not felt guilty about exceeding my daily limits. I understood that I misinterpreted the software that I used. Because lowering my screen time is not a solution in some cases unless you use your device too much. Yeah, using screens too much may have harmful effects on your physical and mental health [4][5].

Existing software do one thing well, it shows us how much time we spend with our devices. But setting goals for spending less time, could be not optimal [6]. I think that “digital wellbeing” software data should also contain an intention dimension to be more complete and be trusted on verifying user’s “usage healthiness”. It may be better to set a goal to use and limit for certain reasons and for an adequate period (not 5hrs per day). Like: I want to use my phone because of [A twice a day,B,C, …] not more than X hours per Z period. I am not saying that you should not check your screen time, I am saying that if you add intentions data to screen time data, you will see a wider picture. Imagine your smartphone had assisted you in checking the necessity of your purposes before using it?

Based on this experiment I started side project and created tiny app called Actuflow for tracking your mobile device usage intentions. So you may try experimenting with usage purposes without taking small notebook with you :)

Thanks for reading!

BTW. Actuflow 3.0 was launched on ProductHunt.
If you are interested in the project check the ProductHunt launch.


[1] The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr [2] Deep Work (Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World) by Call Newport
[3] Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/691462
[4] Screen Time and the Brain Digital devices can interfere with everything from sleep to creativity. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/screen-time-brain
[5] Screen use can affect your eye health in digital age. https://www.ft.com/content/435eef82-654e-11e6-8310-ecf0bddad227
[6] More screen time isn’t bad for you. https://www.fastcompany.com/90452741/research-shows-that-screentime-isnt-bad-for-you-but-something-else-may-be

Software engineer