I found out about this because I looked at the breakdown of my iPhone's battery usage (Settings > Battery). Soon, though, I'll see it directly within Instagram, via a "Usage Insights" feature. TechCrunch revealed the news yesterday, and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom confirmed it with a tweet, and short explanation:
Understanding how time online impacts people is important, and it's the responsibility of all companies to be honest about this. We want to be part of the solution. I take that responsibility seriously.— Kevin S. (@kevin) May 16, 2018
Systrom's mention of personal responsibility is similar to the language Mark Zuckerberg has used when discussing Cambridge Analytica. Facebook owns Instagram, so this resemblance is not totally surprising. However, the references to ensuring time spent is "positive and intentional" go far beyond Facebook's talking points and are more reflective of the user wellbeing trend that's sweeping the tech industry as a whole.
The digital detoxes you've read about in vacation planning articles and mindfulness guides are now being encouraged by the very companies that made them necessary in the first place. Just last week, Google executives promoted "JOMO" (the joy of missing out) and debuted new features meant to limit your time spent online. These include an app timer and a new tool called "shush", which automatically turns on "do not disturb" when you put your phone facedown, silencing any incoming calls, texts, and push notifications. Facebook has been on its own kind of user health campaign since a former executive's disparaging remarks in December, followed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
This focus on decreasing time spent online — or ensuring the only time you do spend is intentional — is somewhat counterintuitive. In the past, the formula for business success in Silicon Valley relied heavily on time: Get people using your product, and make sure they're using it a lot, whether it's an app or a physical piece of hardware. Time translates to ad dollars, helping combat the lucrative TV market. Since 2014, the time spent on mobile — and social media advertising budgets — have steadily risen, as the time spent watching TV has fallen, though it still comes out on top.
While worries about tech's control of our data are just beginning, the health impact has been targeted as cause for concern far longer. Numerous studies warn about the dangers of growing up on screens, and "much of this was driven by how successful and sticky mobile devices and social media apps have been," Evan Asano, the CEO of social media agency MediaKix, told Refinery29.
MediaKix predicts that over a lifetime, people will spend about five years and four months on social media — and that's an underestimate. It will likely be decades before we understand how that pans out from a health perspective for a generation of digital natives.
This lack of insight makes the upcoming introduction of a "time spent" feature on Instagram tricky. "There's not a benchmark or hardline as to what is a healthy amount of time to spend on devices and social media and when it starts to become detrimental," Asano said. "Without that, people can't know that they should be spending less time on it."
To be fair, Systrom said the upcoming tool is meant to ensure time spent is "positive and intentional" — not that you spend less of it overall. Still, that raises questions of how we define "intentional" on social media in the first place. If you start watching a Story and end up clicking through five more people's posts than you originally planned, does that count as unintentional? It's hard to know.
Instagram's play at user wellness is likely tied to another trend in tech right now: user loyalty. But at the end of the day, the responsibility falls not just on Instagram, Facebook, and Google, but on users as well. It goes back to the basics of self control — only we can set the parameters for what we do and how long we do it. Instagram is probably not going to have an option that kicks you off the app for staying on too long (can you imagine the user lash back that would cause?), so you're going to have to decide for yourself, how much is too much? Unfortunately, that's not an easy question to answer.