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We finally started taking screen time seriously in 2018

Judhajeet Das

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At the beginning of this year, I was using my iPhone to browse new titles on Amazon when I saw the cover of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price. I downloaded it on Kindle because I genuinely wanted to reduce my smartphone use, but also because I thought it would be hilarious to read a book about breaking up with your smartphone on my smartphone (stupid, I know). Within a couple of chapters, however, I was motivated enough to download Moment, a screen time tracking app recommended by Price, and re-purchase the book in print.

Early in “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” Price invites her readers to take the Smartphone Compulsion Test, developed by David Greenfield, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut who also founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. The test has 15 questions, but I knew I was in trouble after answering the first five. Humbled by my very high score, which I am too embarrassed to disclose, I decided it was time to get serious about curtailing my smartphone usage.

Of the chapters in Price’s book, the one called “Putting the Dope in Dopamine” resonated with me the most. She writes that “phones and most apps are deliberately designed without ‘stopping cues’ to alert us when we’ve had enough—which is why it’s so easy to accidentally binge. On a certain level, we know that what we’re doing is making us feel gross. But instead of stopping, our brains decide the solution is to seek out more dopamine. We check our phones again. And again. And again.”

Gross was exactly how I felt. I bought my first iPhone in 2011 (and owned an iPod Touch before that). It was the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. I would claim it was because I wanted to check work stuff, but really I was on autopilot. Thinking about what I could have accomplished over the past eight years if I hadn’t been constantly attached to my smartphone made me feel queasy. I also wondered what it had done to my brain’s feedback loop. Just as sugar changes your palate, making you crave more and more sweets to feel sated, I was worried that the incremental doses of immediate gratification my phone doled out would diminish my ability to feel genuine joy and pleasure.

Price’s book was published in February, at the beginning of a year when it feels like tech companies finally started to treat excessive screen time as a liability (or at least do more than pay lip service to it). In addition to the introduction of Screen Time in iOS 12 and Android’s digital wellbeing tools, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all launched new features that allow users to track time spent on their sites and apps.

Early this year, influential activist investors who hold Apple shares also called for the company to focus on how their devices impact kids. In a letter to Apple, hedge fund Jana Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) wrote “social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged,” adding that “it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.”

The growing mound of research

Then in November, researchers at Penn State released an important new study that linked social media usage by adolescents to depression. Led by psychologist Melissa Hunt, the experimental study monitored 143 students with iPhones from the university for three weeks. The undergraduates were divided into two groups: one was instructed to limit their time on social media, including Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, to just 10 minutes each app per day (their usage was confirmed by checking their phone’s iOS battery use screens). The other group continued using social media apps as they usually did. At the beginning of the study, a baseline was established with standard tests for depression, anxiety, social support and other issues, and each group continued to be assessed throughout the experiment.

The findings, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, were striking. The researchers wrote that “the limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group.”

Even the control group benefitted, despite not being given limits on their social media use. “Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baselines, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring,” the study said. “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes a day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”

Other academic studies published this year added to the growing roster of evidence that smartphones and mobile apps can significantly harm your mental and physical wellbeing.

A group of researchers from Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Texas at Austin, and Stanford published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found using smartphones to take photos and videos of an experience actually reduces the ability to form memories of it. Others warned against keeping smartphones in your bedroom or even on your desk while you work. Optical chemistry researchers at the University of Toledo found that blue light from digital devices can cause molecular changes in your retina, potentially speeding macular degeneration.

So over the past 12 months, I’ve certainly had plenty of motivation to reduce my screen time. In fact, every time I checked the news on my phone, there seemed to be yet another headline about the perils of smartphone use. I began using Moment to track my total screen time and how it was divided between apps. I took two of Moment’s in-app courses, “Phone Bootcamp” and “Bored and Brilliant.” I also used the app to set a daily time limit, turned on “tiny reminders,” or push notifications that tell you how much time you’ve spent on your phone so far throughout the day, and enabled the “Force Me Off When I’m Over” feature, which basically annoys you off your phone when you go over your daily allotment.

At first I managed to cut my screen time in half. I had thought some of the benefits, like a better attention span mentioned in Price’s book, were too good to be true. But I found my concentration really did improve significantly after just a week of limiting my smartphone use. I read more long-form articles, caught up on some TV shows, and finished knitting a sweater for my toddler. Most importantly, the nagging feeling I had at the end of each day about frittering all my time away diminished, and so I lived happily after, snug in the knowledge that I’m not squandering my life on memes, clickbait and makeup tutorials.

Just kidding.

Holding my iPod Touch in 2010, a year before I bought my first smartphone and back when I still had an attention span.

After a few weeks, my screen time started creeping up again. First I turned off Moment’s “Force Me Off” feature, because my apartment doesn’t have a landline and I needed to be able to check texts from my husband. I kept the tiny reminders, but those became easier and easier to ignore. But even as I mindlessly scrolled through Instagram or Reddit, I felt the existentialist dread of knowing that I was misusing the best years of my life. With all that at stake, why is limiting screen time so hard?

I wish I knew how to quit you, small device

I decided to talk to the CEO of Moment, Tim Kendall, for some insight. Founded in 2014 by UI designer and iOS developer Kevin Holesh, Moment recently launched an Android version, too. It’s one of the best known of a genre that includes Forest, Freedom, Space, Off the Grid, AntiSocial and App Detox, all dedicated to reducing screen time (or at least encouraging more mindful smartphone use).

Kendall told me that I’m not alone. Moment has 7 million users and “over the last four years, you can see that average usage goes up every year,” he says. By looking at overall data, Moment’s team can tell that its tools and courses do help people reduce their screen time, but that often it starts creeping up again. Combating that with new features is one of the company’s main goals for next year.

“We’re spending a lot of time investing in R&D to figure out how to help people who fall into that category. They did Phone Bootcamp, saw nice results, saw benefits, but they just weren’t able to figure out how to do it sustainably,” says Kendall. Moment already releases new courses regularly (recent topics have included sleep, attention span, and family time) and recently began offering them on a subscription basis.

“It’s habit formation and sustained behavior change that is really hard,” says Kendall, who previously held positions as president at Pinterest and Facebook’s director of monetization. But he’s optimistic. “It’s tractable. People can do it. I think the rewards are really significant. We aren’t stopping with the courses. We are exploring a lot of different ways to help people.”

As Jana Partners and CalSTRS noted in their letter, a particularly important issue is the impact of excessive smartphone use on the first generation of teenagers and young adults to have constant access to the devices. Kendall notes that suicide rates among teenagers have increased dramatically over the past two decades. Though research hasn’t explicitly linked time spent online to suicide, the link between screen time and depression has been noted many times already, as in the Penn State study.

But there is hope. Kendall says that the Moment Coach feature, which delivers short, daily exercises to reduce smartphone use, seems to be particularly effective among millennials, the generation most stereotypically associated with being pathologically attached to their phones. “It seems that 20- and 30-somethings have an easier time internalizing the coach and therefore reducing their usage than 40- and 50-somethings,” he says.

Kendall stresses that Moment does not see smartphone use as an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead, he believes that people should replace brain junk food, like social media apps, with things like online language courses or meditation apps. “I really do think the phone used deliberately is one of the most wonderful things you have,” he says.

Researchers have found that taking smartphone photos and videos during an experience may decrease your ability to form memories of it. (Steved_np3/Getty Images)

I’ve tried to limit most of my smartphone usage to apps like Kindle, but the best solution has been to find offline alternatives to keep myself distracted. For example, I’ve been teaching myself new knitting and crochet techniques, because I can’t do either while holding my phone (though I do listen to podcasts and audiobooks). It also gives me a tactile way to measure the time I spend off my phone because the hours I cut off my screen time correlate to the number of rows I complete on a project. To limit my usage to specific apps, I rely on iOS Screen Time. It’s really easy to just tap “Ignore Limit,” however, so I also continue to depend on several of Moment’s features.

While several third-party screen time tracking app developers have recently found themselves under more scrutiny by Apple, Kendall says the launch of Screen Time hasn’t significantly impacted Moment’s business or sign ups. The launch of their Android version also opens up a significant new market (Android also enables Moment to add new features that aren’t possible on iOS, including only allowing access to certain apps during set times).

The short-term impact of iOS Screen Time has “been neutral, but I think in the long-term it’s really going to help,” Kendall says. “I think in the long-term it’s going to help with awareness. If I were to use a diet metaphor, I think Apple has built a terrific calorie counter and scale, but unfortunately they have not given people nutritional guidelines or a regimen. If you talk to any behavioral economist, not withstanding all that’s been said about the quantified self, numbers don’t really motivate people.”

Guilting also doesn’t work, at least not for the long-term, so Moment tries to take “a compassionate voice,” he adds. “That’s part of our brand and company and ethos. We don’t think we’ll be very helpful if people feel judged when we use our product. They need to feel cared for and supported, and know that the goal is not perfection, it’s gradual change.”

Many smartphone users are probably in my situation: alarmed by their screen time stats, unhappy about the time they waste, but also finding it hard to quit their devices. We don’t just use our smartphones to distract ourselves or get a quick dopamine rush with social media likes. We use it to manage our workload, keep in touch with friends, plan our days, read books, look up recipes, and find fun places to go. I’ve often thought about buying a Yondr bag or asking my husband to hide my phone from me, but I know that ultimately won’t help.

As cheesy as it sounds, the impetus for change must come from within. No amount of academic research, screen time apps, or analytics can make up for that.

One thing I tell myself is that unless developers find more ways to force us to change our behavior or another major paradigm shift occurs in mobile communications, my relationship with my smartphone will move in cycles. Sometimes I’ll be happy with my usage, then I’ll lapse, then I’ll take another Moment course or try another screen time app, and hopefully get back on track. In 2018, however, the conversation around screen time finally gained some desperately needed urgency (and in the meantime, I’ve actually completed some knitting projects instead of just thumbing my way through #knittersofinstagram).

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Logitech’s MX Master 3 mouse and MX Keys keyboard should be your setup of choice

Judhajeet Das

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Logitech recently introduced a new mouse and keyboard, the MX Master 3 ($99.99) and MX Keys ($99.99) respectively. Both devices borrow a lot from other, older hardware in Logitech’s lineup – but they build on what the company has gotten really right with input devices, and add some great new features to make these easily the best option out there when it comes to this category of peripherals.

Logitech MX Keys

This new keyboard from Logitech inherits a lot from the company’s previous top-of-the-line keyboard aimed at creatives, the Logitech Craft keyboard. It looks and feels a lot like the premium Craft – minus the dial that Logitech placed at the top of that keyboard, which worked with companion software to offer a variety of different controls for a number of different applications.

The Craft’s dial was always a bit of a curiosity, and while probably extremely useful for certain creative workflows where having a tactile dial control makes a lot of sense (for scrubbing a video timeline during editing, for instance), in general the average user probably isn’t going to need or use it much.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 5The MX Keys doesn’t have the Craft’s dial, and it takes up less space on your desk as a result. It also costs $70 less than the Craft, which is probably something most people would rather have than the unique controller. The MX Keys still have excellent key travel and typing feel, like its bigger sibling, and it also has smart backlighting that turns on automatically when your hand approaches the keys – and which you can adjust or turn off to suit your preference, and extend battery life.

MX Keys has a built-in battery that chargers via USB-C, and provides up to 10 days of use on a full charge when using the backlight, or for up to 5 months if you disable the backlight entirely. For connectivity, you get both Bluetooth and Logitech’s USB receiver, which can also connect to other Logitech devices like the MX Master series of mice.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 3The keyboard can connect to up to three devices at once, with dedicated buttons to switch between them. It supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS out of the box, and has multi-marked keys to make it easier to transition between operating systems. Plus, when you’re using the MX Keys in tandem with the MX Master 3 or other Logitech mice that support its Flow software, you can transition seamlessly between computers and even operating systems, for doing things like copying and pasting files.

AT $99.99, the MX Keys feels like an incredible value, since it offers very premium-feeling hardware in an attractive package, with a suite of features that’s hard to match in a keyboard from anyone else – including first-party peripherals from Microsoft and Apple .

Logitech MX Master 3

When it comes to mice, there are few companies that can match Logitech’s reputation or record. The MX Master series in particular has won plenty of fans – and for good reason.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 9The MX Master 3 doesn’t re-invent the wheel – except that it literally does, in the case of the scroll wheel. Logitech has introduced a new school wheel with ‘MagSpeed’ technology, that switches automatically between fluid scrolling and more fine-grained, pixel-precise control. The company claims the new design is 90 percent faster and 87 percent more precise than its previous scroll wheel, which is pretty much an impossible claim to verify through standard use. That said, it does feel like a better overall scrolling experience, and the claim that it’s now ‘ultra quiet’ is easy to confirm.

Logitech has also tweaked the shape of the mouse, with a new silhouette it says is better suited to matching the shape of your palm. That new shape is complimented with a new thumb scroll wheel, which has always been a stellar feature of the Master series and which again, does feel better in actual use though it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Regardless, it feels better than the Master 2S, and that’s all that really matters.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 10In terms of tracking, Logitech’s Darkfield technology is here to provide effective tracking on virtually all surfaces. It tracks at 4,000 DPI, which is industry-leading for accuracy, and you can adjust sensitivity, scroll direction and other features in Logitech’s desktop software. The MX Master 3 also supports up to three devices at once, and works with Flow to copy and past between different operating systems.

One of the most noteworthy changes on the MX Master 3 is that it gains USB-C for charging, replacing Micro USB, which is fantastic news for owners of modern Macs who want to simplify their cable lives and just stick with one standard where possible. Since that matches up with the USB-C used on the MX Keys, that means you can just use one cable for charging both when needed. The MX Master 3 gets up to 70 days on a full charge, and you can gain 3 hours of use from a fully exhausted battery with just one minute of charging.

Logitech MX Keys MX Master 3 7Bottom line

Logitech has long been a leader in keyboard and mice for very good reason, and the company’s ability to iterate on its existing successes with improvements that are smart and make sense is impressive. The MX Keys is probably the best keyboard within its price range that you can get right now – and better than a lot of more premium-priced hardware. The MX Master 3 is without a doubt the only mouse I’d recommend for most people, especially now that it offers USB-C charging alongside its terrific feature set. Combined, they’re a powerful desktop pair for work, creative and general use.

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Volvo unveils its first electric car, the XC40 Recharge

Judhajeet Das

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Volvo Cars introduced Wednesday the XC40 Recharge, its first electric car under a new EV-focused brand that kicks off a company-wide shift toward electrification.

“It’s a car of firsts and it’s a car of the future,” CTO Henrik Green said.

The Volvo XC40 Recharge is the first electric vehicle in the automaker’s portfolio. It’s also the first Volvo to have an infotainment system powered by Google’s Android operating system as well as have the ability to make over-the-air software updates.

This is also the first vehicle under Volvo’s new Recharge brand. Recharge, which was announced this week, will be the overarching name for all chargeable Volvos with a fully electric and plug-in hybrid powertrain, according to the company.

The all-electric vehicle is based off Volvo’s popular XC40 small SUV. However, this is not a retrofit of a gas-powered vehicle.

The XC40 Recharge is equipped with an all-wheel drive powertrain and a 78 kilowatt-hour battery that can travel more than 400 kilometers (248 miles) on a single charge, in accordance with WLTP. The WLTP, or Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure, is the European standard to measure energy consumption and emissions, and tends to be more generous than the U.S. EPA estimates. The EPA estimates are not yet available, but it’s likely the XC40 Recharge will hit around the 200-mile range.

That would put the range of the Volvo XC40 Recharge below the Tesla Model 3, Chevy Bolt EV, Kia Niro and Hyundai Kona.

However, Volvo did make a vehicle with impressive horsepower and fast charging capability, which could attract buyers. The vehicle’s electric motor produces the equivalent of 408 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque that allows the vehicle to go from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. The battery charges to 80% of its capacity in 40 minutes on a fast-charger system.

Volvo XC40 Recharge 1

Android-powered infotainment

The infotainment system in the all-electric Volvo XC40 will be powered by an automotive version of Android OS, and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store.

This Android-powered infotainment system is the product of a years-long partnership between the automaker and Google. In 2017, Volvo announced plans to incorporate a version of its Android operating system into its car infotainment systems. A year later, the company said it would embed voice-controlled Google Assistant, Google  Play Store, Google Maps and other Google services into its next-generation Sensus infotainment system.

The Android-powered infotainment system is fully integrated with Volvo On Call, the company’s digital connected services platform. Plug-in hybrid drivers using the Volvo On Call will be able to track how much time they spend driving on electric power.

Volvo XC40 infotainment system

The infotainment system in the Polestar 2, the new vehicle from Volvo’s standalone performance brand, also is powered by Android OS.

Android Automotive OS shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android Automotive OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Volvo isn’t the only automaker to partner with Google to bring Android OS into its vehicles. GM began shipping vehicles with Google Android Automotive OS in 2017, starting with the Cadillac CTS and expanding to other brands. GM said in September that Google will provide in-vehicle voice, navigation and other apps in its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC vehicles starting in 2021.

Over-the-air software updates

The electric XC40 is also the first Volvo that will receive software and operating system updates over the air. Over-the-air, or wireless, software updates were popularized by Tesla, which has used the capability to improve its vehicles over time. Tesla has used the OTAs to fix software bugs, roll out new features in its infotainment system and improve performance.

Volvo intends to use OTAs for the operating system and other software inside the vehicle, Green said. Other automakers, with the exception of Tesla, have slowly inched toward OTAs, but have minimized its use, and limited it to the infotainment system.

“So now the XC40 will stay as fresh as your phone or tablet, and no longer will a car’s best day be the day it leaves the factory,” Green said.

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Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL not launching in India

Judhajeet Das

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The Pixel 4 and Pixel XL smartphones that Google just unveiled at a press conference in New York won’t launch in India, one of the company’s key overseas markets, the Android-maker said on Tuesday.

The bottleneck lies in the headline feature Project Soli, a radar-based motion-sensing chip baked into the new Pixel smartphones that relies on using a certain frequency band — 60GHz mmWave. The company failed to secure permission from the local authority in India to use this frequency band, which the nation has yet to open for commercial usage, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. You may remember that in the U.S., the FCC approved the commercial usage of Soli earlier this year.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said, “Google has a wide range of products that we make available in different regions around the world. We determine availability based on a variety of factors, including local trends, and product features. We decided not to make Pixel 4 available in India. We remain committed to our current Pixel phones and look forward to bringing future Pixel devices to India.”

The radar sensors on the new Pixel smartphones enable support for a number of human interactions, Sabrina Ellis, VP of Product Management at Google, said at the event today. “For instance, Pixel 4 has the fastest secure face unlock on a smartphone, because the process starts before you have even picked up the smartphone,” she claimed. “Motion sense prepares the camera when you reach for your Pixel 4, so you don’t need to tap the screen,” she added.

The radar sensor also enables other applications such as rejecting a call by just gesturing at the phone, Ellis said.

This is the first time Google has had to skip the launch of a phone in India, the second largest smartphone market and where all the Nexus and Pixel smartphones have launched a few days after their global unveiling.

Not launching the new Pixel smartphones won’t really hurt the company… at least financially speaking. The Pixel smartphones have failed to receive any substantial acceptance in the Indian market, especially as their prices increased over the years.

Even as 99% of smartphones shipped in India last year ran the Android mobile operating system, the vast majority of handsets carried a price tag of $200 or lower, research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch.

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