According to the Screen Time function on my iPhone, I average about 4.5 hours each day staring into one (1) glowing rectangle.
If you are over age 40, you’re probably thinking: “That’s because your generation is addicted to screens.”
4+ hours does seem like a lot, especially considering I don’t have my phone with me during the workday. For that much daily screen time, I must have my phone in front of my face from the moment I get home until I put my head down to sleep. Do I?
The answer is a little complicated, both yes and no.
If the purpose of Screen Time is to raise consciousness about how much we use our phones, it’s doing a decent job. Getting notifications every week with those statistics invariably generates the same response from me: “Huh, am I really?” With that in mind, whenever I’m tempted to scroll endlessly on a social media app, I reflexively recall that Screen Time will confront me at the end of the week with an exact figure for my idleness, which does inspire me to use these apps with a little more purpose. In fact, Screen Time awareness brought Facebook down from the #1 to #4 most-used app on the list. Not bad.
Here is how my current average usage breaks out from a pretty typical week at the time of this writing (the last week of May):
Safari 7.5 hours
Libby 5.5 hours
YouTube 5 hours
Facebook 2 hours
Nike Running Club 1.5 hours
Instagram 1.5 hours
Tumblr 1.5 hours
Facebook Messenger 1 hour
Google Maps 1 hour
Music 1 hour
Messages 45 minutes
Podcasts 45 minutes
Notes 40 minutes
What stuck out to me right away is the number for the Podcast app. If you know me, you know this: I listen to a truly untenable, possibly immoral, number of podcasts. Turns out that the definition of “screen time” is pretty rigid: the time that the phone screen is literally on, no matter what else is running in the background.
How we use our phones expands so far beyond just sitting and staring, scrolling on pictures, crushing candy. We use our phones even when they’re not in our hands; for me, it turns out, this is when I use my phone the most.
I went back through all the podcasts I listened to in the past seven days. If my screen had been active for all the time I was listening, that number would have ballooned from 45 minutes to 1,002 minutes, or almost 17 hours. (In just one week! Great, that’s a number I’ll never unsee!) But because my phone screen is turned off while I’m listening, Screen Time tracking doesn’t kick in, and my sins remained hidden – until now. This is true for Music, too. I listen to music while I drive and work out and shower, all of which probably adds up to an hour or more per day. But because my phone screen is not on during that time, it doesn’t count toward Screen Time.
YouTube presents the opposite example. The hours spent on YouTube seems really high, and I know it’s accurate because my phone screen has to be on for YouTube to continue playing. I use YouTube for a ton of different things, though, and very few of them involve me actually looking at my screen, which seems completely contrary to the nature of the app. I like to put on clips of late-night comedy shows as something to listen to while I’m cooking and cleaning and doing things around the house – something I can glance at without having to commit my full attention. The number of hours spent on YouTube is actually a good indicator of how much time I spend on chores every week. Less than an hour per day seems about right.
All combined, I spent about an hour or two per a day on social media apps. To some, this will seem like a lot. To others, not much at all. For most, it’s probably average.
It shocked me, though, that none of my app games amounted to enough time to show up in these numbers at all. I feel like I’m always checking my cats on Neko Atsume. But these check-ins, while quite frequent, only last a few seconds at a time, which even in weekly aggregate don’t amount to much.
So, a more truthful rendering of the Screen Time weekly tally would look something like this:
Podcasts 17 hours
Reading 13 hours (Safari and Libby)
Social media 6 hours (Facebook and Messenger, Tumblr, Instagram)
TV, distractions 12 hours (YouTube and Music)
Fitness 2 hours (Nike and Notes, which I use to track my workouts)
All of this is not to exculpate myself, to make it seem like I’m above being glued to my glowing rectangle. Evidently, this is not the case, and clearly I need to be distracted from thinking my own thoughts at all times. But giving some consideration to the numbers that Screen Time puts in front of my face every week made me appreciate the variety of ways in which devices have made themselves relevant to the minutiae of our lives, keeping us connected and entertained even when they aren’t the recipients of our undivided attention. In fact, it made me realize that my phone usage has changed drastically from my eyes to my ears, from active to passive – not unlike how devices are now, too, always listening, always ready for the command to solicit their input.
What will a post about device usage look like in a decade? A century? Will we outgrow the physical aspect entirety and these device functions will merge seamlessly with existing infrastructure (smart homes, etc)? I hope I find this post again when I am very old, if the internet is not obsolete (cool) or abolished (very cool). I hope I can look back fondly at how quaint and naive I am now and how far technology has come. Or maybe we will soon reach another innovative plateau, one that I personally won’t see the other side of. Either way, a pre-loaded app in my phone made me think for quite a while about the integration of devices into our lives, and that was something I absolutely was not expecting.