How Much Screen Time?

When I get the notification of my weekly screen time I ignore it. Why?

A screen shot of the weekly Screentime reporting on an iPhone
how much screentime the past week?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Once a week (on Sundays) my iPhone sends a pop-up notification that reports how much screen time I have spent during the past week. I get a separate pop-up on my iPad. My question is not how to combine these two numbers, but rather, why is it that I ignore both of them? Kwame, San Francisco

Dear Kwame: You know, of course, you can turn this notification off, but it’s a good that you are thinking about its role. When Apple introduced this service back in 2018 on iOS 12, it was heralded as the long-awaited  tool to moderate phone use and behaviors. Screen time measures the time spent on apps and websites, how often you pick up the phone and (ironically) what  notifications are turned on.

The 2018 release was oriented towards parents: they might use it to manage their children’s content on the screen.  Although they are adults today, the offspring of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were raised with limited access to technology. It’s noteworthy that children born after 2010 are truly the first all-phone, all-the-time generation.

Getting Accountable

In some ways, reporting the total time spent on the Internet is like stepping on a scale to get your weight. You get a measurement that you can hold yourself accountable to. And, as Apple intended, if you have young children or teens, that number could be a blunt tool:  for example, 1 hour of homework equals 20 minutes of screentime.  That said, there are many ways that clever children will find work-arounds, including downloading games to play off-line, resetting the phone’s clock, and even re-routing the family’s router. Nonetheless, boundaries and rules still count.

When I received your question, I asked adult friends why, like you, they don’t pay much attention to the weekly notification. The most common response was that a single number rolls up “good” uses of the phone, say for navigation or following  an hour-long mindfulness app, plus the “bad” uses, like scrolling on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The screen time feature  also detail  how much time was spent on each app, so technically you could do addition and subtraction.

Staying Accountable

That said, ‘time’ on device is still ‘time’ on device  Our eyes, and physical presence have to rest. We also need to change scenery, and be in the fresh air.  Significantly, we need to interact and spend time with other people, in- person. In 2013, five years before Apple introduced the Screentime measure, film-maker Tiffany Shlain, recommended that we take a Digital Sabbath, to manage our digital selves, restore our well being, and promote family togetherness. Watch the video to see her explain the value of the Digital Sabbath- a single day of the week in which we power off our electronic devices and empower ourselves.

Ironically, your own screen time notification arrives on Sunday, traditionally a day of rest. Making people more accountable and aware of their habits began with energy conservation.  Electric utilities and water companies chose to report month to month usage data. People ignored that. Then, social psychologists discovered that the numerical reporting had more impact when it compared consumption in “your home” with the average energy consumption of neighboring users.

Perhaps there is a lesson here- a social element that smartphone users might respond to.  I imagine a classroom teacher might use this to their advantage if they were teaching a course in digital literacy, and parents on Instagram could find new and clever ways to report on that site  how their child “underachieves.”

Smartphone Privacy- Tides Shifting

Does IDFA= Identity Details Facebook Acquires?

Cheetos (the food) leaves stains on your fingers. A Tide ad from the 2020 superbowl ad suggests use Tide for stains.
Smartphone privacy! Don’t leave a trace!
Tide ad from 2020 Superbowl

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am confused by the news about smartphone privacy. First I read this week that Apple has a new privacy feature for iPhones. Then I read a story that big U.S. companies are working with the Chinese to bypass these privacy settings. And, finally, there is a piece today that says it is all a corporate battle with Facebook. I am worried about my smartphone privacy, not about these companies. Annette, Tiburon

Dear Annette: We hold the answers in our hand, but not quite!  There is currently a secret string of numbers called an Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) on Iphones and a similar code, called an AAID on Android phones.  Mobile apps do not have cookies, so instead an unique identifier tracks you across the apps you download, your purchase history, location and quote, “much more.”

In the next release of their software, Apple will provide IDFA controls for the apps you open. Meanwhile, as you noted, some companies are allegedly working with the Chinese to bypass it, like Procter and Gamble (the maker of Tide). A third viewpoint is that this is a high stake game to move the app business away from Facebook.


Suppose, like me, you buy Tide detergent. In bygone times that brand targeted women and ran lots of full page ads in magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens. The publisher of that magazine is now in an exclusive licensing relationship with Walmart, so we can imagine they could merge  the address and zipcode of subscribers with other data bases, and send you promotions for Walmart. Data on the Internet works the same way, except that the IDFA is truly specific and granular- it is at the person (i.e., smartphone) level. 

Ads and IDFA’s are the underpinning of our media, since we do not pay a subscription or license fee like users of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).  Instead, when we use search engines and email we pay with our eyeballs and attention. Our interests and browsing habits are commodities that Facebook, Google, and to a lesser extent Apple, sell to advertisers. Here’s a DearSmartphone post, from the summer, of how a grandma was “oversold.”

Don’t Leave A TRACE!

The point is that that the searches you make, the media you post, and the sites you click leave a breadcrumb trail about “you.”  If I want to sell Tide detergent, it’s important to know whether you favor brand name reputation, as well as your age, marital status, and stage in life. For a fee, Facebook runs a Tide ad  to viewers with these exact qualities. Really, does IDFA stands for “Identity Details Facebook Acquires?”

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the release of new Apple software. There’s a setting on your Iphone where you can ‘sort-of’ opt-out today. Go to <Settings> then <Privacy> <Tracking> and make sure the toggle is off. While there scroll to the bottom of <Privacy> screen and you will reach <Apple Advertising>. Toggle off settings to receive Apple’s ‘Personalized Ads.’ But, note that they still intend to send ‘served ads’ when you search on the App Store or on Apple News and Stocks. Apple calls it “contextual information”  and it speaks to Gabriel Nichols critique (cited above) that a discussion of personal privacy is also entangled with larger institutional interests. 

CUrious IF..

Since we don’t have BBC like fees for the Internet, targeted ads are baked into our digital culture. Speaking of Target,  one of the most often repeated stories about tracking was published in Forbes magazine in 2012. A Dad learned that his teen daughter was first-trimester pregnant, after she bought vitamins, or something similar at Target, the retailer. Target had unwittingly mailed the household coupons for expectant moms. In 2020, a Facebook employee, Colin Fraser, debunks this story, assiduously noting that the story was probably made up, and even if it did happen, the AI prediction model could not operate with such precision and accuracy.

Whether the story and pregnancy are true or false, it should rankle some curiosity and make you more aware and attentive online. Consider using cash instead of a trackable credit card, continue to delete cookies from search engines and preferably buy your Tide from a locally owned and operated store. Finally, spend some time exploring what the apps on your phone want from you and what you choose to give them.

Email out of Control

I am in sales so email is a lifeline…but I am sinking under it!

Catoon, stick figure drawing of a person and unopened mail in envelopes
email out of countro? 2015 blog by

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My email is out of control. When I view it on my phone I feel sad and overwhelmed! But when I look at the same emails on my laptop computer I feel more in control. But, I work in sales, so I need to keep checking incoming emails on my phone. Can you help? Priscilla, Santa Monica

Dear Priscilla: We’ve only had mobile phones with email for about ten years, but the tradition of sending and receiving emails from a computer is decades old. In the nineties,  the emails sent  from desktop computers tipped towards  long, heavy “epistles.” Today, they have shortened up, but it’s still harder to read and scroll them on smaller screens. 

But why? Phones may be acclimating us to  “quick and dirty” chat and anything longer seems bulked up. Alternatively, it’s  harder to read emails on our phone because we are interrupted more often and can concentrate less. And, then there’s the small screen itself.

Throw Out Inboxes

But, as you note, you are in sales, and don’t have the liberty to check your email now and then. As a first step towards sanity, limit the number of different email accounts you keep on the phone. Just install the one or two that you must check for time-sensitive correspondence. 

Since your emails come in throughout the day I would strongly suggest turning off  visual and audio notifications. They are likely to make you feel overwhelmed.  For your employer,  you might need to get in the habit of opening up the key email account two or three times an hour (if not more), during the workday.  Consider, if apropos, a discussion with him/her about email productivity.

Most of the email clients on phones automatically sort by “Important first” “Unread First” and other categories. Fine-tune those to your needs. But, they may never be as precise and helpful as the way ‘AI’ sorts your email on a laptop or desktop computer, scours the Spam, and uses primary inboxes, etc.  BTW, if typing quick responses from the phone is burdensome, explore using voice (but proof-read before hitting Send!).  

Throw in Attention!

There might be a middle ground here: it means getting  your emails on the phone and on the bigger screen in sync.  For example, if you first read a vital email on your phone, tag it with a “star” or “ been read.”  Later in the day, when you are viewing on a bigger screen, deal with the tagged  messages, and delete the rest.  This will focus your email sessions, because you’ll know what’s waiting . And, the important stuff is less likely to sink to the bottom of the list when there’s less to look at.

For just a moment, let me point out parallels between reading email on your phone  and reading digital newspapers or magazines. It’s been found that people who read print versions of a newspaper have a preference for longer stories while headlines and pictures favor the digital reader. In a before-after study of the UK Independent, print readers spent an average of 37 to 50 minutes each day with the daily edition. With the Online version, readers spent, on average, six minutes a month!!! The digital readers spread their time scrolling multiple new sites and social media, perhaps until something caught their attention. (ed. note: a self-selection bias in before and after subjects?)

The reading study suggests that when  we go online we diffuse our attention, if we do not entirely decimate it. When we use the email on phones, we may have diffused attention and cover a lot of different messages. But, responding to the important messages, and getting it right, may require a bigger screen. So, synching well, and saying well may go hand in hand.