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It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone

Farhad Manjoo, writing for The New York Times on the topic of tech addiction, interviewed Tristan Harris, who runs the Time Well Spent organization:

Mr. Harris suggested several ideas for Apple to make a less-addictive smartphone. For starters, Apple could give people a lot more feedback about how they’re using their devices.

Imagine if, once a week, your phone gave you a report on how you spent your time, similar to how your activity tracker tells you how sedentary you were last week. It could also needle you: “Farhad, you spent half your week scrolling through Twitter. Do you really feel proud of that?” It could offer to help: “If I notice you spending too much time on Snapchat next week, would you like me to remind you?”

Another idea is to let you impose more fine-grained controls over notifications. Today, when you let an app send you mobile alerts, it’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition — you say yes to letting it buzz you, and suddenly it’s buzzing you all the time.

Mr. Harris suggested that Apple could require apps to assign a kind of priority level to their notifications. “Let’s say you had three notification levels — heavy users, regular users and lite, or Zen,” Mr. Harris said.

The first idea sounded terrible until I remembered that, for a while, I also used Moment on the iPhone to understand my app habits and curb my Facebook addiction (it worked). I wouldn’t want a tracking feature that shames users and makes them feel guilty (“Are you proud of that?” is precisely what should not happen), but something akin to RescueTime, discreetly integrated with iOS and built by Apple would be a welcome feature.

Deeper control over notifications is something iOS desperately needs at this point. I would be disappointed if a major overhaul of the notification framework and UI isn’t in the cards for iOS 12. Android has offered notification channels for a while now; Apple should borrow the feature and a) allow developers to set different tiers for their apps’ notifications and b) let users override them if a developer tries to be too clever about them. Notification levels on iOS would also be perfect for the Apple Watch: imagine if, without having to fiddle with Do Not Disturb, you could set some types of notifications to be displayed on the iPhone and only the most important ones on the Watch, with fine-grained controls in a unified, intuitive interface. I hope we see something similar this year.