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Why app timers can backfire, according to science
It seems like common sense. But new research found that app time limits such as these can backfire.
When participants in a series of research experiments used time limit features, they generally spent more time on a digital activity rather than less.
I’ve heard from readers who said app timers work for them. Great! Like any strategies for self-control, some people who track how much they’re using Instagram or Twitter find it helps them cut back.
But this research found that most of us believe app time limits make us spend less time with a given app — and, generally, we’re wrong.
[Read Tuesday’s Tech Friend: Are you mindlessly scrolling? Here’s how to tame your bad tech habit.]
This research adds to evidence that when we monitor what we do with technology, it doesn’t necessarily change our behavior. Tracking our physical activity, food consumption or sleep has generally proven ineffective on its own in losing weight, eating less or sleeping better.
If app time tracking also undermines our intentions, we and the tech industry may need to rethink the foundational belief that more information is a ticket to self-improvement.
In the first in a series of research experiments, participants used TikTok regularly for a couple of days and then were prompted to set a daily time limit for themselves in the app. (The most popular time limit people chose was 60 minutes.)
On average, the participants spent about 7 percent more time on TikTok the day after setting a time limit.
The researchers didn’t put it this way, but I imagined that the app timers work on us similar to a speed limit sign. If the speed limit is 35 miles an hour, we’ll often drive right up to that maximum or faster. If there were no sign at all, you might have driven 30 miles an hour.
The researchers made the comparison between our behavior with app timers and household budgets. You might decide you’re going to spend $200 a month on clothes, and then you might spend right up to that limit.
The other research experiments didn’t involve TikTok and tested different approaches to time management of digital activities. They reached a similar conclusion: Timed app limits generally resulted in people spending more time, rather than less, with a given activity.
“It’s not that these tools can’t help, but they can’t on their own,” said Jordan Etkin, a Duke University professor and one of three researchers on the app timer study.
You can read a draft copy of the research paper here. It is preliminary and hasn’t been published yet in an academic journal. The two other co-authors are the University of Delaware’s Jackie Silverman and Shalena Srna, who was recently a University of Michigan professor.
If you want to spent less time with an app or video game, the research did suggest some practical steps.
Compared with people who set a relatively high time limit for a digital activity, such as 90 minutes a day, participants who set lower limits generally spend less time on a digital activity. That means you might be better off picking a limit for yourself of 20 minutes a day instead of 30.
Tuesday’s edition of The Tech Friend also had other suggestions to cut your time online. You might set a timer to turn off your home internet at 10 p.m., schedule days off from your app habit and charge your devices outside your bedroom.
I know some of you will feel angry at the suggestion that you don’t have enough willpower to use simple techniques to curb your scrolling. But we may all need to reflect on our beliefs about self control with technology. (Email me your thoughts at email@example.com.)
If you’re tempted by chocolate cake, you might have strategies to avoid overindulging, Etkin said. You might decide you can’t have chocolate cake in your house. Or maybe you make a deal with yourself or your roommate that you only eat chocolate cake on weekends.
Etkin said that we don’t tend to think that technology requires the same kinds of self-regulation strategies. Perhaps we need cake techniques with tech, too. Maybe you need a no-phone rule at dinner or to lock your devices in a drawer in the evening.
Tech companies are also complicit in our self-delusion about app timers. Introducing those features was among the tech industry’s responses to concerns about tech overuse.
If app timers don’t lead us to cut our online time, we may need different approaches in our families, schools, communities and laws.
Should app timers, for example, do more than nudge us — perhaps physically disabling Instagram on your phone after 60 minutes? Should legislatures decide that children shouldn’t be allowed to use apps for more than an hour a day?
Those ideas sound like overreach, I know. But if the data now shows that technology for digital self-improvement doesn’t do what we believe it does, we and the tech industry need to take that seriously.
Related reading: Will an Apple Watch or Fitbit make you lose weight? Don’t count on it.
Your phone can be a handy substitute for the awful — truly, truly awful — scanners that you might have used in an office or at home.
I love to use the scanning feature in my Android phone’s Google Drive app to create digital copies of my paper receipts for expense reports. And I scan financial documents that I still need to sign on paper so I have a digital copy.
Here’s how to use digital scanning on your phone.
On an iPhone, use the Notes app:
Tap the camera icon → Scan Documents → point the camera at the page you want to scan → select Save.
To share your scanned document or send it to your computer, tap the Share button (the square with the arrow pointing up) and choose Send Copy. You might see multiple ways to share, including by email and Slack if you have those apps on your device.
For Android phones, use the Google Drive app:
Tap the Plus sign. Choose Scan and use the camera to take an image of your document. Tap Next, and the app will create a PDF of your document.
You can save it as a digital file in Drive or send the document by email or to another Google Drive user.
Read more from Tatum: What’s a scanner? Gen Z is discovering workplace tech.