Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company’s new tools will suggest to users when it’s time to take a break from a digital device. Maurizio Pesce/Creative Commons

Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company’s new tools will suggest to users when it’s time to take a break from a digital device. Maurizio Pesce/Creative Commons

Google has unveiled a range of tools focused on “digital wellbeing”, designed to help people disconnect from their phones. “Our team has heard so many stories from people trying to find the right balance with technology,” said Sameer Samat, vice-president, product management, adding that although people find their devices useful, they would prefer to spend some of the time spent staring at a screen “on better things”.

The focus on digital wellbeing comes at a time when technology companies are being scrutinised for the habit-forming design practices that encourage people to spend more time on their devices , such as infinite scrolling, notifications and other behavioural “nudges”.

The latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android P, has an “app dashboard” to help people better understand their own tech usage. It shows how much time you spend using specific apps each day, how many times you unlock your phone and how many notifications you receive. Users can set time limits on specific apps each day, and they will get a warning when they are close to their allocation.

“For rest of the day that app is greyed out to remind you,” said Samat, speaking on stage at Google’s developer conference, I/O, at the Shoreline Amphitheater near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View.

There is also a “wind down” mode that helps you switch off at night by automatically setting the “do not disturb” feature--which stops you from receiving calls, texts and notifications--and turning the screen to greyscale.


The “do not disturb” feature has been upgraded so that it not only silences phone calls and texts but the visual interruptions that pop up on screen. Users can turn the setting on by flipping their phone over so it’s face down on a surface, a gesture Google has codenamed “shush”.

“People struggle to be truly present because notifications on the device can be too distracting,” Samat said.

The company has introduced features to YouTube so that users can see how many hours of content they have watched across their phones and desktop computers. They can also schedule “custom breathers” to encourage them to step away from devices.

“If you have been watching for a while it will show up and say ‘maybe it’s time to take a break’,” explained the Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Pichai reminded the audience of existing tools for helping parents manage the apps their kids use and reduce screen time such as Family Link and YouTube Kids--although the latter has come under fire for hosting disturbing algorithmically-generated videos .

Google also has a training programme to help kids stay safe online called Be Internet Awesome . The programme covers how to be mindful of one’s online reputation, avoid scams, protect privacy, report inappropriate content and deal with online harassment.

Addictive technology

“A lot of technology is designed to be addictive,” said Caroline Knorr from the technology watchdog Common Sense Media. “Companies have created business models around keeping users engaged as long as possible and using persuasive techniques developed with psychologists.”

“I want to applaud Google for these changes. Some of them seem great. However, Google is one of the biggest innovators in some of the sneaky techniques to keep people hooked, like auto-play videos on YouTube.”

Knorr said that Common Sense Media did not necessarily believe in “using technology to fight technology” but that any tool that help parents regulate their and their children’s usage of technology is a positive thing.

These digital wellbeing initiatives come at a time when several prominent technology execs have expressed regret over their role in building addictive products. Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, said that the company built a platform that exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology” .

Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has set up the Center for Humane Technology, a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on “re-aligning technology with humanity’s best interests”. The Center has convened several technology and policy experts to develop design standards and business models that are good for society.

“In the future, we will look back at today as a turning point towards humane design: when we moved away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society,” states the center’s website.

By Olivia Solon in San Francisco