Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
  • At this week’s Google I/O developer conference , the company unveiled a host of features geared at helping you monitor how frequently you use your devices.
  • It’s all part of a new initiative that the company is calling “Digital Wellbeing” and includes several apps and automatic features.
  • Unfortunately, the scientific underpinnings of the features are thin at best.

Google wants you to stop using the term FOMO.

Instead of complaining about your fear of missing out, the search engine giant would like you to celebrate – “JOMO,” the joy of missing out. And it hopes a bunch of new features geared at preventing you from feeling addicted to your devices will help.

It’s all part of an initiative that Google unveiled at this week’s Google I/O developer conference called “Digital Wellbeing.”

Intended to free Android users from the tether of their smartphones, the strategy includes features that allow users to do things like track the time they spend on social media, block distracting notifications, and make their screens less vibrant around bedtime.

But it’s a big question whether the strategy will actually do any good. The features don’t have much basis in science.

Dashboard tells you how often you check your phone

Google Dashboard

Google Wellbeing

One of the primary new features in the Digital Wellbeing initiative is called Dashboard.

Dashboard shows you how frequently you check your phone or tablet, how much time you spend overall on your devices, and even how much time you spend within individual apps such as Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram.

Dashboard appears to be a reaction to the spate of recent stories that suggest that spending time on social media is universally bad for us. Some of those reports have claimed that Facebook and Instagram in particular are making us depressed and even “eroding” our brains.

While such claims make for good headlines, there’s little-to-no good research to back them up. Most of the studies that have been done so far suffer from significant shortcomings.

Some are looking at too few people to reach conclusions that are statistically significant, while others were conducted by the very companies they’re studying or by researchers with clear agendas, which represent conflicts of interest that can cast doubts on results. Some other studies suggest use of devices may be contributing to an existing problem but don’t establish that they’re causing a problem by themselves.

Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, has attempted to replicate some of the studies that suggest a strong tie between social-media use and depression. However, when he used larger sets of people in well-controlled environments, he failed to duplicate their results. Instead, he found either no link or one that was so small, he found it laughable.

“It is literally the lowest quality of evidence that you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room,” Przybylski told Business Insider in March.

Last year, Przybylski co-authored a study published in the journal Psychological Science in which he examined the effect of screen-time on a sample of more than 120,000 British teens who used their devices for social media, streaming, and playing games. The data suggested a shocking conclusion: screen-time isn’t harmful for the vast majority of teens. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful – especially when teens are using it for two to four hours per day.

“Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous,” Przybylski wrote in the paper.

For Dashboard to actually be beneficial, Google or someone else would first need to demonstrate that there’s some type of relationship between our overall wellbeing and how we’re using our devices and apps.

Simply showing which apps we’re using and for how long likely isn’t going to do us a lot of good on its own.

Placing your phone face-down will quiet notifications

woman shushing


Another big Digital Wellbeing feature offers an easy way to block notifications.

When you place your phone face-down on a surface, it will automatically go into its “do not disturb” mode. The idea behind the new feature is that fewer alerts will mean less anxiety and more tranquility.

There is a growing amount of research that hints that getting constantly flooded with a barrage of beeps and flashes reduces our productivity and increases anxiety. No surprise there.

But there aren’t any studies that indicate snoozing our devices’ notifications will help us feel better. When researchers have attempted to solve the anxiety problem by muting notifications, it didn’t seem to work. In fact, some people actually felt worse.

In a study presented last month at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association, researchers including Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that people who had the notifications from their devices sent in clusters of several at a time said they felt less stressed and happier than people who received them in the usual way, where they arrive sporadically throughout the day. But the people who got their alerts in clusters also felt less stressed and happier than people who didn’t get any notifications at all.

“Participants who did not receive notifications experienced higher levels of anxiety and fears of missing out,” the researchers wrote. “These findings highlight mental costs inherent in today’s notification systems (or of abandoning them).”

Wind Down puts your phone in grayscale

android p wind down mode


Google designed its other big Digital Wellbeing feature to be used at bedtime.

Wind Down drains the color from your Android device’s screen, so that it displays everything as a shade of gray. The rational behind the feature is similar to that behind Apple’s Night Shift feature, which changes an iPhone’s color scheme from one tinged with bright blue light to one imbued with orange light.

Night Shift is actually based on some scientific research. Blue light, which is also given off by the sun, is nearly the brightest light in the visible spectrum. In humans, blue light depresses the production of melatonin, a key hormone our brains use to tell our bodies to start preparing for sleep. That’s something you don’t want to be doing at night, especially as you’re heading to bed.

Unlike Night Shift, though, Wind Down doesn’t have much research behind it. No one has really scientifically studied how removing color from a display affects users’ attention, productivity, sleep, or mood. All we have are anecdotal reports from a couple of users who’ve willingly experimented on themselves with the feature and claimed it helped them.

So feel free to try to find joy in missing out, but don’t rely on a host of new Google apps to do it.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The average person gets between 65 and 80 phone notifications a day, according to research being conducted at Duke University that was presented at a recent American Psychological Association Conference.
  • The researchers found that giving people notifications in three batches during the day made them happier than getting them normally, getting them once an hour, or turning them off completely.
  • Turning notifications off completely made people feel stressed and worried about what they were missing.

After you feel a buzz in your pocket or see a flash on your phone, your attention is already fractured.

You could pick up your phone and see if what’s called you away is something you really need to address immediately – or you could try and focus on your work, all the while wondering what you’re missing out on.

Since it can take close to 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction, according to researchers who study productivity, this is obviously a recipe for a distracted day where not much gets done.

Fortunately, we are learning better ways to handle smartphone notifications, according to research being conducted at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, which was presented by senior behavioral researcher Nick Fitz at a recent American Psychological Association conference. The research was conducted in collaboration with the startup Synapse, which is incubated at the Center.

Fitz and collaborators have found that batching notifications into sets that study participants receive three times a day makes them happier, less stressed, feeling more productive, and more in control. That works better than getting notifications normally, getting them once per hour, or even than blocking them of completely.

“Turning them off doesn’t really work,” Fitz said in a follow-up interview after the conference. “But we can [get notifications] in a smarter way.”

ios new notifications


So many notifications

For the particular study Fitz discussed at the conference, they analyzed the notifications that people got on their phones and found that the average person got between 65 and 80 notifications per day (people may check their phones more frequently, that’s just the number of notifications that show up).

So for their study, for two weeks they had a control group check their phones normally, one group receive notifications in a batch every hour, another group that received three batches of notifications (at 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m.), and one group that got no notifications.

While not receiving notifications people could check their phones normally but wouldn’t see anything on their lock screen – the phone would ring for calls but not leave a “missed call” on the lock screen.

In general, people report that phone notifications make them feel stressed, unhappy, interrupted, and non-productive. That held true for the study control group. Receiving notifications even once an hour was so similar to this that it didn’t make much of a difference.

Surprisingly for Fitz, turning notifications off completely didn’t work either. People did feel that they checked their phones more “intentionally,” which the researchers considered positive, but people were also anxious about what they were missing out on. It’s possible that over a longer period of time, several months, people may have adjusted and enjoyed this experience more, according to Fitz. Or, perhaps a system that let some notifications through – emails from a boss or calendar reminders about important meetings – could have assuaged that anxiety.

But three batches of notifications seemed to be the sweet spot, with people feeling more productive, positive, and in control.

Guests gather for an outdoor meditation practice at 1 Hotels & mindbodygreen Earth Day Celebration at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.

Guests gather for an outdoor meditation practice at 1 Hotels & mindbodygreen Earth Day Celebration at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Building an even better system

According to Fitz, the ideal system would be context-aware – it would recognize the best times for a person to get a batch of notifications and might allow certain particularly important notifications through.

“Interruptions in general aren’t great but it’s better if they come at opportune times,” said Fitz.

The ideal system might be location aware and give you your first batch of notifications as you arrive at work or hop on the subway, a second batch at the end of a lunchbreak, and a third batch as you head home for the evening. Perhaps emails might come through that way, but less-important notifications from Facebook would only be delivered once per day in the evening.

The fact that this worked was somewhat surprising for Fitz, as notifications are just one component that can add stress to complicated lives. But it turns out that even adding some element of control can really improve people’s lives.

“It’s not as if this is some panacea, we’re not going to solve ADD with this,” said Fitz. “But it certainly has an effect on people.”

The Synapse team plans on releasing the app they built to regulate notifications, Daywise, to the public within the next few weeks. (The study was conducted only with Android phones, since it wasn’t possible to have that level of control over Apple devices for now.)