Apple aims to get smartphone addiction under control

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Responding to growing concerns that people—particularly teenagers—may be spending too much time staring at their smartphones, Apple is offering a new tool to help users of its iPhones manage the time they spend on their devices.

Apple’s 2018 Worldwide Developers Conference kicked off Monday in San Jose with a preview of the new iPhone operating system—iOS 12—which includes the Screen Time tool that provides a dashboard enabling users to track the amount of time they spend using apps and to place limits on those that they are overusing.

The overuse of smartphones often results from users’ habitual checking of apps, according to Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering at Apple. “Some apps demand more of our attention than we might even realize,” Federighi told the conference. “It’s become such a habit that we might not even recognize how distracted we’ve become.”

He said Apple has “thought deeply” about the issue of smartphone addiction and as a result has launched a “comprehensive set of built-in features to help you limit distraction, focus and understand how you are spending your time.”

Federighi made the case that the Screen Time tool will be particularly valuable for some kids and “can help families achieve the right balance for them.” Parents receive an electronic report of their child’s online activity and have the ability to create “allowances” for app use as well as enforced “downtime,” which can be managed remotely from parental devices.

In January, two large Apple shareholders wrote a letter to the Cupertino, Calif.-based company urging the tech giant to create ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their iPhones, while calling for a study into the effects of heavy usage on mental health.

Using standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests, researchers have found that addicted teenagers have significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity. In fact, a study presented at the 2017 Radiological Society of North America showed an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, using magnetic resonance spectroscopy—a type of MRI that measures the brain’s chemical composition.

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