Android Pie Digital Wellbeing Beta: a deep-dive into Google’s new phone feature

Android Pie, or Android 9, the freshest version of Google’s mobile OS has an optional Digital Wellness feature tucked away in the settings. Currently, it’s only in Beta for Pixel devices like the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, available to anyone running Android Pie who signs up for the early version

The feature looks set to be a talking point throughout 2019. After all, digital wellbeing in general is becoming a much more discussed topic, and that’s no surprise given the fact smartphone adoption is only on the up.

Why digital wellbeing?

We exercise, we watch what we eat, we think twice before walking in front of a moving vehicle. In fact, we don’t do that last one because instincts kick in. 

Over thousands of years, we’ve come to realize, consciously and subconsciously, that doing and not doing certain things improve our physical health and keeps us from damaging our most valuable asset – our self.

By contrast to the the physical, digital technology, revolving around smartphones and encompassing our always-connected relationship with tech, is a relatively recent phenomena.

Today, it’s estimated that roughly 70% of the populations of the US, UK and Australia are smartphone users, with users in the US spending an average of 3 hours 35 minutes per day on their phones.

The rate of smartphone adoption has been so high, it hasn’t given science and national guidelines time to keep up. This means that we’re one giant social experiment, identifying the impact of all this tech in real time, on us, and chances are, any guidelines to follow will be reactions rather than preventative measures.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, we’re better connected than ever before. Smartphones and the internet are helping us stay in touch with loved ones across the globe while ensuring we have incredible access to potentially life saving information.

In the same breath, smartphones are now shaping a generation of teenagers, many of whom are addicted to apps like Snapchat and Instagram. 

Recent research has found links between teen depression, body dysmorphia, suicide and social media use. As for adults, everything from increased anxiety to election rigging and national revolts have been tied to smartphone adoption. 

Two people texting on smartphones

Android Pie's Digital Wellbeing Dashboard explained

Android Pie’s Digital Wellbeing dashboard is currently available to early testers, with the less official option being to sideload the APK if users are running Android 9 on a compatible device. 

Once installed, the feature creates a menu within the settings titled 'Digital Wellbeing'. Open it and you’ll instantly see an Android pie chart illustrating your screen-on time.

This is broken down by application used as a percentage of total use, along with the number of times you have unlocked the screen and the number of notifications your phone has received in a day.

In isolation, this information is just a wake up call – "Basil, you spend 30% of your smartphone time on Tinder". The pie chart itself doesn’t give you any control over your usage, just stats.

As for the options below it – that is where the compulsion control lies.

Ways to disconnect

Below the pie chart, the first set of customization fall under the category Ways to disconnect.

The first of these is the Dashboard, a screen that documents usage of specific apps with a bar chart, giving users options to limit how long specific apps can be open. 

If, for example, you’re addicted to left and right swipes, like I apparently am, and want to minimize the amount of time you spend on Tinder, lock it to 15-minutes. When you have five minutes remaining, you will get a notification to alert you to wrap things up and send that final message of the day.

When your time is up, the app icon will go grey, you won’t be able to open the app and Tinder notifications won’t come through until the timer resets. Unless you go back into your settings and up your allotted time, that is.

Wind Down

Below the Dashboard sub-menu is Wind Down. Similar to Quiet Hours in the latest Windows 10 Creators Update, this set of options is all about helping you chill out from night to morning.

The first thing you can do here is activate Grayscale, making your screen monochromatic between these Wind Down times. 

The reason a black and white screen can help your digital wellbeing is down to how your brain processes color, emitted from the light from light in the display. Colors are like visual roars whereas monochromatic tones are more like whispers.

Wind Down times also activate Do Not Disturb, so notifications are totally silent. In addition, the mode also enables a blue light filter from sunrise to sunset as well, helping normalize melatonin production, which could result in a sounder sleep.

Reduce Interruptions

The final set of customization the Digital Wellbeing feature gives users is granular control over notification management and the Do Not Disturb setting. 

Notification management offers options we’ve had in Android in the past, but it’s now located in the context of Digital Wellbeing – an arguably easier to access location than its old home within the apps settings.

Open it up and your screen is filled with all your apps in a vertical list, complete with toggles to the left to blanket turn on/off notifications for the corresponding app.

Everything gets much more comprehensive when you click through on one of your applications though, revealing an expanded notification control.

The level of notification management over Twitter, for example, one of the most overbearing applications when it comes notifications is as follows:

  • Notifications can be turned on/off for individual accounts
  • Within these accounts, notifications can be toggled for direct messages, emergency alerts, news, followers and contacts, security alerts and more

Not all application notifications are this extensively customizable yet, but serial offenders like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are..

Better yet, this kind of granular constraint on which notifications vie for your attention doesn’t require a deep dive into the Digital Wellbeing menu. 

If Android Pie notices you swipe a type of notification out of the way repeatedly – for example “Chuck Norris is Live on Instagram” – it will ask you if you want to ignore that specific type of notification going forward. That isn’t to say Instagram notifications will be blocked, only Instagram live alerts.

Do not disturb

The final aspect of the Digital Wellness suite, Do not disturb, will likely the most familiar to most people. Click through and the sub-menu gives users control over what Do Not Disturb does – sound, vibration and notification alerts. 

Here you can also set exceptions to the rule – calls and alarms for example, and you can schedule it on or off.

This scheduling can be fine tuned to set times, during a specific event, or it can even be automated to kick in when you’re driving, engaging with the phone’s location services to detect when you hit the road.

With all these features in tow, Android Pie looks set to be the best OS around for anyone concerned about smartphone addiction or general digital health, at least until iOS 12 drops. 

As promising as all this is though, there’s no word from Google as to whether Digital Wellbeing will be made available for other manufacturers.

Verdict: it’s a start, but is it enough?

Without a doubt, Digital Wellbeing is a step in the right direction, and considering it’s only in Beta right now, it adds some meaningful support for Android users who want to be more conscious of their smartphone habits. 

That said, the feature requires a degree of pro-activity to get any benefits from it. It’s also buried within the settings menu, with no option to add a shortcut to your home screen or access it a more convenient way. 

If Digital Wellbeing comes pre-installed as part of Android in the future, tighter integration with the OS, easier access to it and some proactive hints, tips and tricks for maintaining a healthier relationship with technology could take it to the next level.

That said, there is one striking omission from the Digital Wellbeing dashboard: parental controls. 

Studies on the negative effects smartphone use has specifically highlighted teens are most at risk of social media screen time negatively affecting their mental health.

Having a simple pin lock linked to the Dashboard so kids couldn’t override the time constraints so easily would have instantly made the feature a must have for parents.

What are other manufacturers doing?

Android’s only real competitor, iOS, is hot on Google’s heels with its upcoming iOS 12. Currently also in beta, its wellbeing center is called Screen Time and is also hidden within the settings. 

Similar, but different to Digital Wellbeing on Android, it doesn’t cover notification control or offer monochrome/screen color options – found elsewhere in the settings. 

Neither does it allow you to customize the Downtime, aka, do not disturb period, to the extent Android’s Wellbeing Dashboard does. Despite these differences though, it still manages to be win an important battle that could in turn, win the war – parental controls.

Screen Time’s parental control benefits boil down to one thing – passcode security. iOS, unlike Android supports a locked down system in which the amount of time within an app can only be restricted or unrestricted with a four digit pin. 

This changes the game completely, turning a soft rule that can easily be moved into one that needs to be respected. With increased durations spent on social media linked to greater risk of depressive behavior in teens, limiting screen time with unbreakable rules could be the clincher. My advice to Google – get passcode security in there before Digital Wellbeing is out of Beta.

After all, apps are designed to be addictive – time spent using them is a major metric when app developers sell advertising – so app developers are unlikely to help users curb addictive behavior. 

If any party is in the best position to support healthy smartphone use, it’s the OS maker. OS wellbeing features in Android will likely trickle down to the smartphone manufacturers, Samsung, OnePlus, Huawei for example, and then be built upon. 

In short, the smartphone world is on a precipice – get behind Digital Wellbeing or play catch up. In 2019, the term will go from being a Beta user setting within Android to an important buzz phrase, but unlike buzz phrases of old, Digital Wellbeing is something we should all care about, if we don’t already.

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