For over a decade, Apple's done everything in its power to keep your eyes, ears, and fingers glued to your cellphone. This makes their latest feature a little puzzling.

Tucked away in iOS 12, the mid-2018 iteration of Apple's mobile operating system, is a feature called Screen Time. This feature will monitor user activity about app usage, time spent on the device, and more. It will also allow people to set limits for themselves. Parental controls are nothing new when it comes to pieces of tech, but Screen Time is a little different in that it's not necessarily for children.

"With Screen Time, these new tools are empowering users who want help managing their device time and balancing the many things that are important to them," Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, said during the product announcement. In effect, Apple is giving users the option to limit themselves and the time spent on their devices.


A look at what Apple's Screen Time feature will look like on iPhone. Image from Apple.

The need for Screen Time illustrates a growing consciousness around the issue of tech addiction.

It may sound silly, but people are becoming increasingly dependent on mobile devices. Figures vary, but it's estimated that the average U.S. adult spends somewhere around four hours on their phones and tablets each day, a number that's climbed higher in recent years. Whether it's actually an "addiction" is up for debate (it's not currently listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but it and similar technology-related issues are being studied.

Whether or not tech can actually be addictive, there's a lot of data to suggest that it's just simply not great for our health in large doses.

If tech addiction doesn't exist, it's not for a lack of trying.

In a November interview with Axios, Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook and its first president, explained the driving question behind the company's development: "How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?"

"That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments. It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."

To be fair, getting people to use a product as much as possible isn't exactly a remarkable goal for any company. Facebook just succeeded in ways other businesses haven't.

Sean Parker addresses a conference in 2017. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen.

Some in the tech industry are finally asking questions and drawing conclusions about the long-term effects of dependency on technology.

Former Facebook vice president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya told an audience at Stanford University that the "short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we've created" pose a threat to society as a whole. "No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it's not an American problem — this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem."

During its 2018 I/O conference, Google acknowledged that technology as we currently know it comes with some downsides. "Great technology should improve life, not distract from it," the company's Digital Wellbeing website proclaims. This new suite of tools, similar to Apple's Screen Time, comes with a simple goal: Ensure that "life, not the technology in it, stays front and center."

Without a doubt, tools like those in Google's Digital Wellbeing and Apple's Screen Time are a good thing. But they're probably not enough.

In his 2016 TED Talk on how "better tech could protect us from distraction," former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris laid out a plan to "restore choice" in the relationship we have with technology. The goal is to convince companies to pursue a metric of "time well spent" rather than simply time spent. Harris called on companies to judge their success on the company's "net positive contribution to human life," on designers to resist the urge to simply create unproductive time-sucks, and on consumers to "demand technology that works this way."

A healthier relationship with technology requires companies to rethink their businesses as a whole. Tools like Digital Wellbeing and Screen Time on their own don't address the underlying issue.

If you feel like you're having a tough time reducing your time on your mobile devices and you want to cut back, there are simple things you can do right now.

As co-founder and executive director at the Center for Humane Technology, Harris advocates for better design. The organization's website is full of great resources, but none better and more instantly applicable than its list of ways to "live more intentionally with your devices." Here are five suggestions for ways you can cut back on mobile device dependence:

1. Manage your notifications.

CHT recommends turning off all notifications for everything except messaging apps, text, and email.

2. Change your display to black, white, and gray.

Did you know that you can make your iPhone display grayscale? CHT outlines how to do that, removing some of the bright colors that demand our attention.

3. Sleep with your phone in a different room.

Not only do phones have a nasty habit of keeping us up late when we're trying to sleep, but waking up next to one reinforces a habit that starts the day diving headfirst into technology.

4. Reorganize your home screen.

Think about what apps you spend a lot of time mindlessly browsing. Now move them to the second screen. CHT suggests using the home screen for "apps you use for quick in-and-out tasks."

5. Use available tools and apps to help you.

Tools like Digital Wellbeing, Screen Time, and third-party apps are designed to reduce distraction. Did you know that there's an app you can download that temporarily locks you out of other apps? How about an extension that blocks out Facebook's newsfeed? There are loads of productivity apps that  make your phone usage a bit more deliberate without having to cut yourself off from technology entirely.

Apple CEO Tim Cook appears at Apple's 2018 Worldwide Developers Conference. Photo by Apple.

Technology can be wonderful, and social media can connect us in powerful new ways, but remember that too much of a good thing can have its downsides.

No one is saying that you shouldn't use the internet or your smartphone. Those things are simply a part of people's lives now. What you should do, if you want to, is set boundaries for yourself. If even the companies whose profits depend on getting people hooked on the use of their products are taking steps to help you dial things back, it's probably worth a shot.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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