Screen Time Is Kind Of A Broken Mess

Dacoda Nelson
Sep 27, 2020 · 13 min read

It’s become fashionable in the last few years to be able to track the amount of time users spend on their devices. The theory seems to be that if armed with this data, users can begin finding ways to ween themselves off the digital world. Whether this is an effective method or not is worthy of debate, but the practical upshot has been that people who are interested in what’s called “quantified self” have gotten a whole host of utilities from big brands that supply us with the data we crave.

Apple decided to enter the playing field with their utility: Screen Time, which runs on iPhones, Macs, and iPads which support the last few years’ versions of the OS. When this was announced I thought it was going to be terrific and I could get rid of some of the other utilities I’ve been using to track things like how long I’m on my computer, what applications I’m using, how many keystrokes I make, etc.

Instead, Apple put out a largely unusable and extremely frustrating tool. When I first started using it last year I tried to convince myself that my dislike of the utility was based on the fact that I wanted more functionality that didn’t arrive, and that I was being unreasonable.

That’s not the case!

Somehow, Screen Time is able to stumble on the one thing it’s supposed to do: aggregate the amount of time I spend doing things on my devices.

Here’s the premise: Screen Time will run seamlessly in the background when enabled, and it will track time spent in each app on your Apple devices.

It certainly runs seamlessly, as far as I can tell, but the data in the reports is nonsense for anything other than an iDevice. If you’re one of the many people who use a computer to do work and an iPhone or iPad to communicate and consume media (and yes, occasionally to do work-type things) then you’re going to wind up with Screen Time reports that are unhelpful at best and confusing at worst.

Normally I wouldn’t consider this worthwhile to write about, but the thing that concerns me about this is that a lot of people rely on Screen Time reports because they take the idea that they’re overusing electronics seriously. These people have a lot of anxiety about decreasing their “digital dependence” and, as I’ve seen firsthand, put a lot of blame on themselves whenever they fail to make a decrease, or when there’s even the slightest of increases between days or weeks.

The trouble comes from the fact that the reports can be misleading. Take this screenshot from my iPhone. 11 hours, 37 minutes as a daily average for last week, which was apparently up 41% from my previous week. That number seemed startling to me because it was drastically higher than I’d been seeing previously; so startling that I actually felt the beginnings of the fear that people who worry they are digitally addicted must have.

Fortunately I was able to calm myself down. A moment’s thought was all it took to realize that this wasn’t that bad. I’d been catching up with old friends and colleagues a lot that week, so the idea that I was spending 8 hours a day working on a computer and 3 hours a day on my phone really isn’t cause for concern.

Things like iPhones and Macs are tools and what you do with them matters more than how much you’re doing it. There’s value in the idea that if you’re spending 6 hours a day on Facebook you should probably do something about that. If you’re spending any time ever on Facebook you should probably rethink your life decisions, but that’s as may be. Spending 6 hours a day on your computer for work though? 8 hours? That’s … well that’s more of a problem with society being fascinated with the concept of an eight hour workday instead of productivity, but that’s another discussion entirely; what’s important is that if you’re using a Mac to do your work, the amount of time you spend on it is less important than the numbers themselves.

(It makes me think about what life would have been like if shysters had managed to convince people of other forms of “addictions” and moral failings in the same way they’ve terrified people about screen usage. I’d like to imagine some meta-tracker they’d sell, and throughout the day you could glance at all the time you’ve spent doing vaguely-defined tasks.

There would be construction workers sitting at home chastising themselves for their hopeless “hammer addiction”, having spent 2% more time using one today than yesterday. 7.2 hours with a hammer? Yeah buddy, you’ve got a problem. Auto mechanics would be flocking to therapists across the globe. “Doc, you gotta help me. I’m using a wrench for more than 5 hours a day already, and I think it’s getting worse!”)

One of my biggest nitpicks has to be that Screen Time counts phone calls though, and I wonder how much anxiety this has contributed to users who don’t click through and think about what the numbers mean. The implied idea behind Screen Time is to track how often you’re using digital devices and lumping in being on the telephone seems a little disingenuous. The people who rely on these numbers are usually concerned about staring at their screen too much — hence the name of the feature! — which isn’t what’s happening when they’re on a call. Perhaps having the time available in the detailed view as a different color would be fine, so people know it’s not counted as time using the screen but can still see how long they spent on the phone in a handy place, but lumping it in with all the other screen time is cruel.

The other part of Screen TIme’s functionality is even more broken, though. In theory you’re supposed to be able to click on the “See All Activity” button and take a look at time spent in specific applications and on specific websites. The insight that would offer if it worked is admirable.

Sadly, it seems to have a real problem with computers. I can understand this to a certain degree: it’s much easier to track application use on iPhones and iPads because they’re designed to have only one open at a time. Click into Safari and Screen Time tracks how long you’re there. Swipe home and launch your mobile banking app and all it has to do is track how long you’re in that app. Ditto when you launch Netflix to binge something at the end of a long day.

With computers there’s a big screen and most normal human beings have multiple applications open at once. As I type this I’ve got Pages open, Safari is in the background waiting for me to copy and paste into Medium, there’s a Finder window with the images for this article, a Terminal window I keep open for some CLI-based time management tools, and I’ve got TeXShop open because I’m writing a book.

What Screen Time does is it just counts time in all those open windows. If it’s on a screen it’s accumulating use-time. That’s not helpful! Probably the only thing that could make that less of a helpful way of logging things is if it counted all of that time in an aggregate when it gives the final daily Screen Time total. It doesn’t do that, fortunately, so each hour with three windows open is only counted as one hour instead of three, though each of those three applications will get one hour of use-time in the details pane.

I tried to think about this from a programming perspective and for a few days I convinced myself that actually this was fine because it would be presumptuous to think that you could tell what application a person was using. Except, I came to discover, it really wouldn’t be that hard at all.

You see, PC operating systems have active windows.

That’s a perfectly workable and reasonable way to accumulate time inside an application. If a user has Excel, Safari, Mail, and Calendar open, it’s remarkably simple to figure out which of those applications should be having time added to its use counter: which window has been clicked on? If I’m typing in Excel, I’m using Excel. If I glance over at Mail when a message comes in and I need to handle an email then I’ll click Mail to open it and compose a draft or something — that’s the signal to start counting time in Mail.

Even in the case of something like the user glancing at Calendar to check a date to type into Excel it’s not that complicated. Keep counting time for Excel. The user hasn’t really started using Calendar, they’re just referencing it quickly for a few moments; the application you’d say is being actively used in that scenario is still Excel — the one that’s being typed into. If the user does click on the calendar to add an event or change to a different view or something, then they’re using Calendar.

See? It’s not so hard, and it’s not even unreasonable.

But no, instead I get reports like this, where apparently I’m meant to believe I wasted an hour and a half of my life in the App Store. If I were looking back on this a week from now and I were the sort of person who worried about these sorts of things, I might be concerned that I’d wasted an hour and a half in the App Store. This would be a problem because in reality the App Store was open and displayed on another window because I wanted to remember to manually start some updates before I went to lunch. I wasn’t using it for more than a minute, I was actually going through the jumble of emails that have accumulated in my inbox recently because I’m disorganized.

The last thing about Screen Time that’s bothersome is not about how the utility itself works — in this it’s just doing what it’s supposed to — but in how many people I know interpret the results. That’s the whole reason I thought to write this article really.

The people I know who use Screen Time in what I guess they’d want me to call a “health conscious” way use it because they’re concerned that they’re wasting their lives on their devices. They’re worried that because of some personal moral failure they don’t have the fortitude to stop scrolling Instagram or liking Tweets. As a result, they’ve made the fatal error of assuming that the amount of time on an electronic device is the same as the amount of time doing stupid things on an electronic device.

What this leads to is increasing anxiety in these people who see the numbers and don’t perform an analysis. This is actually a broader problem in society — especially American society — that I have to mention frequently which is that the average person really is not equipped to deal with data and statistics. They’ll fall for absurd arguments based on a misinterpretation of a poorly-devised study, or valid statistics taken out of context. Data analysis requires a solid grasp of fundamental mathematics, as well as reasoning and logic, because numbers are a language that is not intended to convey anything other than their own values; what those values mean is something that takes thinking about.

When people start getting frustrated because they’re spending what seems like inordinate amounts of time on computers and mobile devices, they are usually forgetting that this is just how things are now, and that really they enhance our lives more than hinder them.

Let’s examine the ways that this report from my iPhone could be interpreted:

Right out of the gates we can see that I spent 10h 40m on my devices on the 25th of September. One way to look at this is to say that I have a serious problem. If I only looked at the daily total on the previous screen, that would be an even easier conclusion to reach because I wouldn’t have the detailed statistics below.

The healthy way of looking at that number, though, is to remember that I am writing a book. I spent several hours that day doing research and writing — at least six from the time-tracking software I use. I’m sure another hour or two of that was spent futzing around with some charts that I am putting in, so technically that counts as writing too, and technically writing counts as work.

This will be different for others, of course, but you can see the point. Using a computer to do work is a good thing, actually, so if you use one as part of your job then you will have to expect that Screen Time numbers are going to be high to begin with. It’s not a sign that you’re unhealthy, it’s a sign that you use a particular tool to do something, and since that tool happens to have A LOT of different applications, it’s likely that it’ll be a tool that’s used pretty often.

The next argument someone might make to me is that I spend an unhealthy amount of time in messaging apps. The blacked out one is a messaging website a friend of mine is developing and I don’t want to give away the URL, but it’s still a messaging app. That would mean that, in total, I spent 4h 11m chatting with people online. Surely that’s not healthy!

The correct way of looking at this data, though, is that a) we’re in a global pandemic so we’re all going to be communicating digitally a lot more — it’s better than just getting rid of your friends outright because you don’t want to increase your device use, and b) I don’t know about you but I happen to have a lot of people I know who I couldn’t meet up with in person even if I wanted to unless I were to take a trip on an airplane.

That’s right, I have friends who don’t live on this side of the country, and I even have friends who live in other countries entirely. Even more wild, I have friends who don’t even live on this continent. Wild, huh? Although, sarcastic as I’m being, I’m sure this is true of a majority of people. So why are we supposed to feel guilty for staying in touch with them?

Try writing a letter to a friend sometime. First, because this is a fun thing to do and it’s got a special touch to it. Second, because you’ll quickly realize how much better technology has made your life. In two hours I could probably write one solid, information-packed letter, address and stamp it, and take it to the post-office. All combined, I’d have had one half of a conversation with someone and I’d have to wait a few days at the least to see what they had to say.

The trendy view of things is that communicating with your acquaintances online is somehow less real, less meaningful, and less effective than doing it in any other way. This leads a lot of the people who are into reducing their use of electronics to be the sort of people who would see my 4h 11m in one day using messaging apps as a sign of unhealthiness. Where are my real social interactions.

Well, again, global pandemic. But even in normal times spending a few hours on a messaging app every day so you can keep in touch in real-time with your friends all over the world is a drastically improved and more human way of interacting than anything else that’s ever existed. Because it’s “digital” we’re supposed to believe that it’s somehow making us ill but again, I will point to the alternatives: either get rid of any friends you can’t meet up with in person, or spend all your time writing letters back and forth. The former is even less social than using a messaging app, and the latter — while fun and charming and totally worth doing every once in a while — is a wholly less effective way of chatting.

Instead of feeling bad about using messenger applications for several hours one night and worrying that I might be unhealthily addicted to my devices, I just chalk it up to being more socially engaged than usual. If anything that’s a good thing.

But, if being more socially engaged with others has increased my Screen Time numbers, that’s supposed to be bad, right? I mean, the numbers are up, look at them!

This isn’t the fault of Screen Time itself, but it’s worth mentioning because people need to be reminded that it’s not how much you’re using your devices, it’s how you’re using them that counts. Do not stress yourself out if the numbers are higher than some previous time: instead consider whether what you were doing during those hours was behavior you truly think needs to be curbed. If so, then great: Screen Time has been helpful. If not, then there’s nothing to be worried about. Give up on this digital addiction hype and let yourself enjoy things again.

As for Apple, it’d be nice if they fixed the glaring problems with the Mac side of Screen Time. It’d also be great if there were some thought put into adjusting the visual presentation that would help people who aren’t used to interpreting data make better sense of it all. Top of my head I’d say that for anyone whose devices sync their use, make the overview bars for the day different colors to represent the different devices that contributed to that time.

The ability to define work hours and have the system visually distinguish between those would be helpful too. A lot of people get too stressed out seeing those high numbers without remembering that they really don’t have a choice of accumulating Screen Time for portions of the day. They’re more concerned about how much they’re using their devices when they have the option of doing something else.

Hopefully we’ll see some improvements in this over time. There are quite a few ways I can think of, and probably many more that Apple engineers could devise, that would help the average user interpret their Screen Time data in a more relevant way than it seems many of them are doing, and this is important now more than ever as the popularity of spreading fear around device usage times is increasing. Some tweaks to Screen Time would surely reduce the anxiety levels of quite a few users.

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Dacoda Nelson

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I’m an IT consultant, I studied physics, and I enjoy securities analysis in my free time, when I’m not writing. He/him or they/them. BLM!

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