Mark Zuckerberg is a man of year-long resolutions. In 2009, he wore a tie every day. In 2010, he learned Mandarin. In 2015, he read two books a month. But this year, Zuckerberg’s resolution looked a little different: He vowed to spend the year making less bad stuff happen on Facebook, and working to ensure that “the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent.”
It’s useful to remember this after the year Facebook’s had, which includes: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a two-day Congressional hearing, news of a compromised election, admitted influence from Russian trolls, repeated problems with fake news and fake accounts, a 20 percent plummet in stock, and, you know, accusations of inciting genocide.
But the year isn’t over yet! And Zuckerberg is still serious about promoting quality time on his platforms—which is why today, Facebook and Instagram are each rolling out a set of tools designed to give users more control of how they spend their time on the apps.
Users can now set reminders to get off the app after a certain amount of time, and can temporarily disable notifications for anywhere between 15 minutes and eight hours.
“When people use Facebook and Instagram, we want to make sure that they feel good about the time they’ve spent on the platform,” said Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s Product Director of Well-Being, at a press briefing on Tuesday. “A big part of that is making sure that people are in control of their experiences and they can be mindful and intentional about how they’re spending their time, how much time they’re spending, when they engage, how they engage.”
The new features roll out jointly to Instagram and Facebook users starting today. There’s a new activity dashboard that shows users the average time they spend on the platform each day, as well as a day-by-day breakdown of time spent during the past week. Users can set reminders to get off the app after a certain amount of time, and can temporarily disable push notifications for anywhere between 15 minutes and eight hours. Ranadive described them as tools for more “intentional” and “mindful” use of the platforms.
It’s hard not to see this as bandwagon-jumping on the part of Facebook. Earlier this summer, Google and Apple each introduced a similar suite of tools, which give users more granular control of notifications and screen time. Those initiatives seemed to remind people that it’s not your phone that’s the problem—it’s all the junk on it that continually distracts you and wastes your time. Google’s Digital Wellness initiative and Apple’s Screen Time tools both aim to neuter apps like Facebook and Instagram, which stand in the center of the dopamine vortex on our phones. Now, Facebook and Instagram want to position themselves as allies—not enemies—in that pursuit.
“We have a whole team of experts who are working on wellbeing and thinking about how do we learn more, how do we understand more about the relationship between social media and wellbeing,” said David Ginsberg, Facebook’s Director of Research, at Tuesday’s press briefing.
How can you find JOMO on the app that practically invented FOMO?
In January, Facebook rejiggered its News Feed algorithm to prioritize posts from friends and family over viral videos, news, and other content. That move, Ginsberg said, was a first step in promoting time well spent on Facebook. “Giving people a sense of their time so that they’re more mindful is a second part of that.”
But there are still hard questions: You can use the activity tracker to show how much time you’re spending on Facebook or Instagram, but how does a user measure the quality of time on those apps? What does “time well spent” even look like on a platform so often riddled with toxicity? How can you find JOMO on the app that practically invented FOMO?
“It’s really hard to cut down, even after having somebody tell you, ‘You’re on for four hours a day,’” says Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who studies the psychological impact of obsessive tech use. Rosen uses an app called Moment in his research, which tracks phone activity much like Facebook and Instagram’s new activity dashboard. He’s found that people don’t use their phones significantly less after tracking the (often shocking) number of hours they spend scrolling.
Rosen calls the new Facebook and Instagram tools a “good first step” in helping people understand how much time they’re spending on Facebook or Instagram. But those features alone don’t go far enough to unglue users from the apps or change unhealthy behavior. “Facebook and Instagram are going to give us the ‘what,’” says Rosen. “Now we have to figure out the ‘why,’ and the ‘how.’ How do you deal with it?”
More than that, these new tools send a message about who’s liable for the time they’re spending on these platforms. By “empowering” users to “control” their time spent on screen, tech companies distance themselves from the responsibility of addiction, social anxiety, distractibility, and wasted time. A suite of time management tools puts the onus on users to make the experience what they want. Hey, it’s not our problem that you can’t control yourself, the tech companies seem to say. We gave you the tools to control how you’re spending your time.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Ranadive emphasized that these tools are just a starting point. Instagram and Facebook will continue expanding and evolving these features over time, including “more insights, more context, and more controls.” For some users, it might be enough to make social media feel nice again. But for most of us, it won’t do much to slow the scroll.
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