Why Screen Timers Don’t Work

At our recent event it was brought up that, although we have an increasing level of awareness and education around social media’s pitfalls, and more and more tools to better cope with them, people continue to use harmful products to their own detriment. Screen timers haven’t solved the problem. Alarmist documentaries like The Social Dilemma haven’t solved the problem. What’s up with that, and what new tools and education do we need?

Which table is longer?

This awesome Ted Talk by Dan Ariely demonstrates one of the biggest problems perfectly. When you look at the above two tables of equal length, and you know that they’re of equal length, your brain still tells you that one is longer than the other. And again in the image below, even after we learn that the colored squares being pointed at are the same color, our eye can’t perceive it. That’s because the visual cues that create the illusions are hardwired into us, and just knowing that we’re perceiving something incorrectly isn’t enough to change our hardwiring.

Are the colors being pointed at the same or different?

Understanding the psychological tricks that social media uses to high-jack our brains isn’t enough to make those tricks stop working. A screen time tracker that scolds you for indulging in too much social media scrolling or game playing doesn’t give you nearly the same level of satisfaction as the scrolling and game playing did, in fact quite the opposite. Likewise explaining to someone that our brains are attracted to irregular rewards, and this is why we compulsively scroll, doesn’t stop it from being an itch that wants scratching.

Often, education and healthy habits can be tedious, boring and require lots self-discipline in comparison to the fun and immediate gratification of the alternatives. Not everyone is well wired to delay gratification and work toward long-term gain and rewards, and even for those that are, so much self-discipline can become fatiguing. When we have to exercise higher and higher levels of self-control in more and more areas of our lives, our self-control “muscle” gets overworked and overtired.

So what can we do? One option is the obvious one — if you can’t beat them, join them. Many ethically minded designers are beginning to think about how to gamify and reward healthy design. The first question to be considered about this method is whether or not it’s ethical to continue exploiting peoples’ vulnerabilities, even if we think we’re doing it for the right reasons. Oftentimes good intentions have unintended consequences, as we see with many of the well-intended designs already in existence such as the “like” button. For this reason, it’s vital that no one entity make the decision of what’s best and impose it upon the masses; there needs to be transparency and options for the end-user, always.

Many apps designed around fitness and health allow you to personalize your experience and goals, and reward you for your achievements in some way. While social media is also personalized to you and rewards you, you are not an active participant in the personalization by consciously contributing your desires and feedback, and the rewards are so subliminal you don’t even realize certain behaviors are being rewarded and reinforced. If social media acted more like the apps that put users in the driver’s seat, letting you decide what you want out of the experience and giving you honest feedback about whether or not that’s being achieved, perhaps it could be a healthier experience.

While companies like Facebook may never reach a place that could be considered healthy, you can take it upon yourself to exploit your own reward-seeking behavior by setting healthy digital-usage challenges and reward yourself for achieving them. Already have a favorite method or tool? Let us know in the comments!

Enjoying learning something new? Sign up for our e-mail newsletter and get a bite-sized piece of inspiration and information every week, as well as a free Bill of Rights download as a welcome gift!

Click here to sign up

You can also support us by sharing this article, following us, and applauding our posts. Give yourself a nice reward for clapping for good content!

Community Focused, Ethically Driven