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Time limits for Facebook and Instagram users: will they work? It’s doubtful social media giants really want us to use them less

Your Time on Facebook and Your Activity on Instagram will show how much time you spend on the apps and let you set daily time limits. But there’s no evidence yet that they’ll change behaviour, and new settings only go so far

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2018, 2:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 August, 2018, 6:03pm

Brace yourself: Facebook is going to tell you exactly how much time you spend – or is that waste? – on Facebook and Instagram.

New settings called Your Time and Your Activity will begin rolling out updates to the Facebook and Instagram apps, respectively. Tap into them, and you’ll see a dashboard with how much time you spent using each app over the last week and also get the chance to set up self-imposed daily time limits.

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A “daily reminder” pop-up with a pause icon will let you know you when you’ve gone over.

It’s like the calorie counts on the Cheesecake Factory menu, if they also came with a wag of the finger when you top 3,000 calories. The new controls are the most visible step yet by Facebook to address growing concern that its apps are too good at sucking us in – and create unhealthy habits or even depression.

But how committed is Facebook really to getting all of us to spend less time on Facebook? Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has lately proclaimed he is interested in making sure our time is “well spent”. Yet he has incentive to keep us hooked: Facebook makes more money when we spend more time looking at ads and feeding it more data.

“It is really important for people that use Instagram and Facebook to feel like the time spent with us is time well spent,” said Instagram product management director Ameet Ranadive, echoing the line from his boss. “There may be some trade-off with other metrics for the company. That is a trade-off we are willing to live with.”

Facebook’s new screen time controls are similar to functions announced by Apple and Google that will be included in updates to iOS and Android coming later this year. The operating systems will provide data about how much time you spend across all the apps on your phone as well as give you the ability to set daily limits.

It is really important for people that use Instagram and Facebook to feel like the time spent with us is time well spent
Instagram product management director, Ameet Ranadive

They also plan to offer controls Facebook probably does not like, such as locking out access to apps and cutting off notifications entirely. (Facebook’s new software also lets you mute notifications from its apps for up to eight hours. But anyone trying to curtail their time using these apps should probably turn off notifications entirely.)

The assumption in these tech industry efforts is that giving people data about how they’re using their phones will lead to healthier behaviour. It can certainly be eye-opening: a pre-release version of the Apple iOS 12 software reports I spent nearly six hours using social networking apps in the past week.

But information alone won’t necessarily change behaviour. Is my six hours normal, or extreme? Facebook’s controls don’t put your daily tallies in any context. Instagram reported in August 2017 that users under age 25 spend more than 32 minutes a day on the app, and users older than 25 spend 24 minutes a day. (The company wouldn’t share updated Instagram figures or any Facebook data.)

Ranadive said Facebook developed the new software in collaboration with academics and mental health experts as well as by tapping the company’s own research. But he didn’t offer any evidence if or how it changes people’s behaviour. The company also didn’t preview its new software with the Centre for Humane Technology, a coalition of Silicon Valley execs that has been critical of Facebook’s practices and coined the “time well spent” phrase.

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What about offering more help to people with the most extreme behaviour – the top 0.1 per cent who spend hours and hours on Facebook and Instagram daily? “This is just the beginning and we plan to evolve the tools and give people more insights and context,” Ranadive said.

Information is also only helpful if you see it. Facebook buried this data in the settings menus few people bother to open. Ranadive says the company will do some “in-app” education to market the features.

A few more caveats: the new software also only discloses use of an app on a single device. It won’t tally up how much time you spend on Facebook on both your phone and iPad and won’t measure your use in a web browser at all.

Of course, these software controls don’t do anything to address the social ill that also fuels some of the bad behaviour: an expectation that we’re almost constantly online, responding to friends and colleagues.

Ultimately, kicking unhealthy habits is going to take willpower and difficult discussions among families, friends and colleagues.

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Ranadive said: “What I’m most looking forward to is using these tools in conversations with my daughter who turned 13 recently and started using Instagram.”