Screen time at ‘breaking point’ but can tech help?

Screen time at ‘breaking point’ but can tech help?

Screen time at ‘breaking point’ but can tech help?

It is no secret that technology has become increasingly
present in our lives, especially over the past year.

We use our devices to stay in touch with friends and family,
to educate and entertain our children and, for many, to work from home.

But endless virtual interactions have resulted in so-called
Zoom Fatigue, according to scientists at Stanford University.

To prevent digital burnout, tech firms are now trying to
design technological solutions to encourage productivity and creativity and to
allow you to spend less time staring at a screen.


Take breaks

Microsoft has introduced a new tool on Outlook that
encourages people to take shorter meetings with plenty of breaks.

The settings schedule meetings five minutes after the hour –
to provide a natural break between calls.

The tool was created in response to Microsoft’s own
research, which found that back-to-back virtual meetings can make people
stressed and distracted.

Researchers conducted brain scans of 14 people during four
half-hour back-to-back meetings – once without breaks, and once with 10-minute
breaks in-between each meeting.

The analysis said no breaks led to a spike in stress levels,
especially when switching between calls.

“Taking a physical break from screens is also
essential, as this can improve our ability to focus,” Nick Hedderman,
modern work lead at Microsoft UK, told the BBC.

He suggests that leaders could create a “positive
remote culture” by:

shortening meetings to between 20 and 40 minutes

conducting “team check-ins” that aren’t related to

scheduling voice-only walking meetings “to change the
scenery and improve physical wellbeing”


Clear boundaries

“If we are mindful of our behaviour and establish clear
boundaries and schedules, we can choose to have technology work for us instead
of against us,” says Naz Beheshti, former executive assistant to Apple co-founder
Steve Jobs.

In her new book, Pause. Breathe. Choose: Become the CEO of
Your Well-Being, she stresses the importance of being bored, a lesson she
learned from Mr Jobs to encourage creativity.

“The next time you have a gap of time in your day, refrain
from filling it,” her book says. “Resist picking up your phone or other
electronic devices, which could temporarily entertain you with something
diverting like your never-ending social media feed.”

There are a mounting number of scientific studies which have
shown that phones and notifications have a detrimental effect on productivity
and attention.

Research from the University of California Irvine found it
took 23 minutes to return to a single task after a notification. And people
managed to focus their attention on computers for an average of only 47
seconds, before turning to another screen such as a phone.

Notifications can take time to recover from, lead to errors
and can cause stress, the research suggests.


Daily limits

Apple and Google have both tried to empower smartphone
users, with Apple’s Screen Time feature and Android’s Digital Wellbeing tool.

A user’s device will brief them on how much time is spent on
each app, and how many notifications they have received.

You can set daily limits and timeframes and customise

And Google is adding a new feature that will send an alert
telling you to look up from your phone when walking.

Without notifications, even the presence of a phone can
reduce your ability to concentrate, according to one study from the University
of Chicago.


Digital detox

For those without the willpower to disable notifications,
there are tech hardware solutions.

The Light Phone is a simple mobile phone, which aims to
eliminate distractions caused by smartphones.

It has very basic capabilities: calls, texts (and group
messaging), alarm and mobile hotspot.

You can also add a calculator, simple music player and
podcasting tool.

But the phone “will never have social media, internet
browsing, email, news, or ads”, the company promises.

There has been a steep increase in orders of the Light Phone
over the pandemic, as people struggle to switch off at home.

“The problem is still there, if anything it’s worse because
we are locked down,” co-founder Kaiwei Tang explains.

Only 50% of Light Phone owners use it as their primary
phone, many switch to it at the weekend, on holiday or in the evenings, when
they want a break, Mr Tang adds.

And for drafting documents, or editing them, reMarkable
offers a technology solution… to the notebook.

It looks like a tablet, but feels like writing on paper. The
technology can also convert your handwriting into a text file to send over

But as it is designed to “take you into production mode”,
you can’t browse the internet, receive emails or even check the time on the

“It isn’t just a device, it is a counter-movement against
all of that,” says chief executive Magnus Wanberg.

He says it is “hypocritical” of big tech companies to put
the responsibility of limiting screen time on the users, when devices and
algorithms are designed to be addictive.

“Focus is the scarcest commodity now that we have,” he adds.

Deep work


There is a growing understanding of the importance of being
left uninterrupted while doing focused “deep work”, says Prof Duncan
Brumby, of University College London.

“We know that periods of focused deep work are short-lived
and hard to carve out.

“These periods should therefore be used wisely, and
notifications disabled during these times.”

But although this may be more productive, such working
patterns may not be suitable for everyone.

“You are at the mercy of your boss” if you don’t respond to
calls or emails for long periods of time, says Bruce Daisley, former Twitter
vice-president, now author writing about workplace culture.

“Pretty much the whole of modern working is suboptimal for
concentration,” he adds.

“We’re at breaking point with screen time.”


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