Why You Shouldn’t Feel Guilty About Your Screen Time

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I write for a living, which means I reflexively spend a good chunk of my day trying to avoid writing. Computers are perfect for this: I have quick access to every distraction you can possibly dream of, all on the device I should in theory be using to write.

Perhaps the best part of this whole arrangement is how easy it is to feel guilty about all of the writing I’m not doing. The best tool for this is the screen time feature offered on Apple and Android devices, which allow you to review how much time you’ve spent using each app on your device. These are perfect applications for feeling guilty in a way that doesn’t really inspire any kind of self reflection or change: they just make me feel bad.

And you know what? I think me feeling guilty, and not doing anything about it, is on some level the reason these apps are built into phone operating systems. Such features subtly push the blame away from the intentionally addictive and habit forming applications I use and toward me.

To make this argument, I’m going to talk about littering. Please don’t leave.

Pay no attention to the multinationals behind the curtain

Littering is obviously bad—I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. But a lot of the anti-littering messaging you’ve seen is funded by the companies that produce the wasteful packaging that ends up on the ground. Put simply: there wouldn’t be as much litter if regulations forced companies not to over-package everything, but that would cut into profits. Anti-littering campaigns were a specific corporate tactic to prevent regulation. Here’s Bradford Plumer, writing for Mother Jones:

In 1953, the packaging industry—led by American Can Company and Owens-Illinois Glass Company, inventors of the one-way can and bottle, respectively—joined up with other industry leaders, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company to form Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which still exists today. KAB was well-funded and started a massive media campaign to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory—everyone involved was fairly transparent about their motivations, as Plumer’s reporting makes plain. I am not saying that all the people who work for Keep America Beautiful are cynical—I’m sure some sincerely want to reduce litter, and reducing litter is good. But what I am saying is that there is value, for companies, in shifting the blame for litter away from wasteful packaging practices and toward individuals, and that value is the main reasons such large companies are diverting money to such a tactic.

I think the screen time feature on your phone is similar. I am certain that there are people inside both Apple and Google who are sincerely concerned about users’ phone habits, and that screen time features exist in part out of those sincere concerns. At the same time, though, this feature plays a trick similar to the anti-littering campaign: to subtly switch the blame for how much time we all spend on our phones away from the tech industry and toward the individual.

It’s not about the time, it’s about what you do with it

Companies like Google, TikTok, and Facebook employ some of the smartest people on the planet and incentivize them to build software that gets users to spend as much time as possible using their products. Using self control to limit your screen time in that context isn’t bringing a knife to a gun fight—it’s bringing a water pistol to a thermonuclear war. Tech companies know this—believe me, they obsess over user data more than you could possibly imagine, and they know that screen time as a tool can, at best, help you aim that water pistol a little better.

Put simply: if knowing how much time you looked at your screen really helped you waste less time on your devices, the feature wouldn’t exist. I think that there needs to be more regulations around the kinds of tactics applications use to pull us into scrolling trances, though I don’t think that’s likely to happen anytime soon.

I recently read an article on Simone.org that outlined this all well, in much fewer words than I’ve used here:

Here’s the truth: Screen time doesn’t matter. It’s not about how much you use your phone. It’s about whether your phone is a needy, attention-sucking vampire. If that’s the case, the only healthy screen time is no screen time. Zero. That’s why the main metric tracked by screen time apps is deceptive: 10 minutes of shooting crack cocaine intravenously are still 10 minutes of shooting crack cocaine intravenously.

I am not going to sit here and tell you which applications are good and which applications are bad—only you can figure that out for yourself. And I’m not going to try to tell you how you should use your device—again, that’s on you.

What I am going to do is tell you that there’s value to thinking critically about how you’re using your technology. Devices are, in theory, a tool. When you use them it should be toward accomplishing a specific goal. That might be writing, an art project, or coding. It also might be relaxing. It is valuable, no matter what your goal is, to be intentional about it. Your attention is valuable—what you do with it literally shapes the person you become.

My advice is to think less about how much time you’re spending on your devices and to think more about what you’re doing during that time. Two hours spent scrolling through Reddit posts is different than two hours spent reading an ebook. I can go even further: two hours spent scrolling r/all on Reddit is different than two hours spent reading Reddit reviews of a tool you’re thinking of buying. The important thing isn’t how much time your spend on the device—it’s about noticing, at any given moment, whether the time you’re currently spending is being spent well.

Believe me: this is going to be an annoying habit to build, and in many ways the task is impossible. But your relationship with technology, like any other relationship, is complicated, and you need to work on it regularly if you want it to be healthy. Keep that in mind, and consider turning off screen time notifications altogether.

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