Google’s Idea To Reduce Tech Addiction

tech addictionResearch indicates that smart phones are making us unhappy. Google recently revealed that 70% of its users actually want help balancing their digital lives. What can smartphone manufacturers of the world do about it? After all, it’s in their business interests to make their phones as engaging–or addictive–as possible.

For now, Google’s upcoming Android P operating system is introducing three great features to help us break–or at least, better manage–our screen addictions.

Despite the seemingly contrary conflict-of-interest, at I/O , Google introduced a clever and aggressive response to its own habit-forming products. It’s a broad initiative called  Digital Wellbeing that CEO Sundar Pichai says will ultimately affect every Google product. “It’s clear that technology can be a powerful force, but it’s equally clear that we can’t just be wide-eyed about [it],” said Pichai on stage at Google’s I/O conference. “We feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.”


With a feature called Shush, Android P will automatically silence your calls and notifications when you flip your phone over, screen side down. That means you don’t have to push any buttons or dig through deep settings menus. To put the phone down you just . . . put the phone down.

What’s particularly brilliant about Shush is that its gesture is modeled directly after a behavior so many of us already do, as we place the phone face-down on the table during a meal we’d like to enjoy with friends or family. Now, that gesture will become more powerful, with software supporting your desired behavior. (Incidentally, design nerds may notice that Motorola developed this  same idea a few years back–but it will definitely be more widely adopted as part of Android P.)


“We heard from people that they checked their phone right before bed, and before they knew it, an hour or two went by,” say Sameer Samat, VP of product management at Google. Google and Apple have both already introduced warm, color shifting modes at night so that your phone’s blue light doesn’t disrupt your natural sleep cycle. But with Digital Wellbeing, Google is doing more with a feature called Wind Down mode that turns your phone gray.

You set Wind Down when you’d like to go to bed, and Android P will shift into a gray-scale palette that takes some of that slot machine-style delight out of your phone. It essentially turns your device into  a Mac from 1985.


Most studies show that we check our phones more than 100 times a day. But that’s the sort of generalized stat that’s easy to brush off. Android P will have a personalized data visualization of your actual phone usage, from how many times you checked it in a day, to how many push notifications you received. It will even display what you did inside various apps–and on this front, third- party developers will be able to specify trackable metrics inside their software.

Exactly how specific this tracking will get is still a bit unclear–I can imagine something like “John spent six hours watching anime cartoons, and 15 minutes watching geometry proofs”–but Google wants to push what it calls “meaningful engagement,” not just garbage time on your phone. Hopefully developers feel the same way. Within this data view, you’ll also be able to set something akin to a parental control on yourself, asking apps like YouTube to notify you once you’ve watched a daily limit of videos.

Of course, all these new features still seem to offer users the option to override their own self-regulatory decisions, and re-enable their own phone addiction–much like throwing out a pack of cigarettes doesn’t prevent anyone from stopping off at the gas station to grab another. Now that Digital Wellbeing has launched, hopefully these are but the first experiments Google is trying to make its phones a healthier part of our lives. We’re looking at you next, Apple.

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Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day. His work has also appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.

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Pragmatic Journey is Richard (rich) Wermske's life of recovery; a spiritual journey inspired by Buddhism, a career in technology and management with linux, digital security, bpm, and paralegal stuff; augmented with gaming, literature, philosophy, art and music; and compassionate kinship with all things living -- especially cats; and people with whom I share no common language.