I Tried to Limit My Screen Time

It didn’t go well.

A Screen Time notification reading "Time Limit: You've reached your limit on Twitter."
Ian Bogost

There are people who hate Twitter, and there are people who also hate themselves for using it anyway. I’m the second kind. Maybe everyone who uses the service is now. It doesn’t have to be Twitter, either. For you it might be Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever other app that was built to farm your attention and now successfully reaps it abundantly.

For me, the loathing is multiple. First, there’s the compulsion of loading the app at all: of flicking its infinite scroll whenever I’m idle, even just briefly—at a stoplight, in front of the microwave, in the bathroom. Then there are the things I see there: the angry or bitter or stupid posts that make me angry or bitter or stupid in turn. And the things I share on the service, too: things I regret, or come close enough to posting to produce a phantom guilt that feels equally bad.

Time after time, I’ve resolved to do something. I delete the app from my phone regularly, only to reinstall it, sometimes the very same day. I’ve considered deleting my account, but I never follow through, for fear of losing the hypothetical value of whatever platform I have built there. So a few months ago, I pursued what seemed like a promising compromise: Apple Screen Time, the iPhone feature that lets you set up a daily time limit for any app (or category of apps) you choose.

Screen Time has been around for a while, supposedly allowing iPhone users to “make more informed decisions” about how they use their devices. I’ve mostly ignored it, but disgust at my own attachment to the device led me to give it a shot. It wasn’t particularly useful for controlling how much I used Twitter. But it did do one thing: It helped me see how hopeless that effort really is.

Fifteen minutes. That’s the daily limit I set up for Twitter. I thought this would accommodate just enough time to scan for trends (and calamities), see what people were saying to (or about) me, and then get the hell out again.

Just getting Screen Time set up to do this is not easy. Apple introduced the feature in iOS 12, about a year ago, in an apparent attempt to help curtail the attention-sink hellscape to which its devices largely gave rise. By default, it tracks app usage in the background, presenting a weekly summary in the form of a complex chart that tells you that you look at your phone too much.

To do something about it, you have to go to the phone settings and create an “app limit.” The phone makes it easy to control usage by app category—social media, or games, or entertainment, for example, though the categories are broad: If you use Twitter or WhatsApp for work, for example, a “social media” limit will curtail your ability to do so. Not too much, though—you still have the option to “ignore limit,” either for 15 minutes more or for the rest of the day. It’s possible to set limits on a single app. But the process is so unintuitive, I can’t remember how I did it (this way, apparently).

Once Screen Time is enabled, the device will dutifully police your session with Twitter (or your chosen poison). First a notification: “5 minutes remaining today.” Then, when the bell tolls, a dour, white screen appears: “Time Limit. You’ve reached your limit on Twitter.” Above it, an hourglass animates to empty. No more Twitter for you today. Once their time is expended, the relevant app icons darken on the home screen, the sad hourglass flanking the app name. It’s as if a severe professor were staring sternly down half-rim spectacles at the device, and then you, and then it, and then you again.

Screen Time was always going to be a punitive matter—the feature was meant to set and enforce boundaries, after all. But all this austerity romanticizes an idea of deliberate focus long gone. The hourglass, for example, is a relic from maritime, clerical, and mercantile life that was mostly replaced more than 500 years ago by the mechanical clock. Historically, Apple has deliberately avoided this icon: The first Macintosh interface used a stylish-looking wristwatch to clock away time while the computer worked (Susan Kare, who designed it, thought people would be familiar with a watch but not an hourglass, which the earlier Apple Lisa had used). Now it uses that infuriating beach ball. It was Windows, Microsoft’s operating system, that popularized measuring delays by hourglass. Putting one on the sleek, black rectangle of your iPhone thus concocts a syrupy mélange of lithe modernism and ascetic medievalism.

Everything about Screen Time is disorienting in this way. For the first week or two, before you disable the weekly reports from sheer irritation, they arrive in the least hospitable way possible: on Sunday mornings. You wake up late and stumble into the kitchen, slipper-footed, to brew coffee. You check your phone while you wait, and there it is: your Screen Time Weekly Report. Graphs and bars, telling you how much you used your phone this week (too much), and on what (dumb apps) and how that amount compares to your average (more, probably). Apple declined to comment on the record but pointed me to an interview about Screen Time with Greg Joswiak, a vice president of iPod, iPhone, and iOS product marketing. Joswiak compares the feature to calorie counting, allowing users to “come to their own conclusion” about their device usage. This is the worst kind of bathroom-scale experience, one that—for me, at least—just served to make me feel badly rather than to help me identify and realize goals. “Here’s some information,” Screen Time says with a shrug. “Up to you to decide what to do with it.”

Let me tell you what I do with it: basically nothing. I use the app until the time expires. Then I just “ignore limit.” Usually for 15-minute increments—often a number of them, over time—and then sometimes for the rest of the day, when the extra tapping becomes a nuisance.

This ritual might make me more mindful, but mostly by making my self-loathing more self-aware. Now, instead of tapping the Twitter icon to load the app, I tap it to load the Screen Time nag screen, which reminds me that I’m a bad person for using Twitter too much. Then I tap “ignore,” ensuring the prophecy gets fulfilled.

Screen Time has other, more structural problems. It treats app usage as an all-or-nothing affair: So long as Twitter is foregrounded on my device’s display, I’m burning time against the clock. Except app usage isn’t monolithic like that. If Twitter really were just universally awful, I’d have an easier time giving it up. But I like it for news and information discovery. Often I’ll click through to read a news story someone has linked to—but then, my iPhone construes the time I spend reading as Twitter usage. The same problem arises with Twitter direct messages. DMs offer a convenient way to communicate, one that’s less noisy than email. But time spent reading or composing one-to-one messages is measured no differently from mindless scrolling through angry threads misconstruing politics or pop culture.

Before it became an iPhone feature, “screen time” was a parental shorthand for media exposure—mostly television. That sense—as a catch-all term for certain kinds of screen-mediated activities—can still persist, even in the age of the everything device. Limiting kids to a specific measure of “screen time” is possible because it operates at such a high level of abstraction. It invites (and even forces) them to make choices about how they might use their time—playing three rounds of Fortnite, or watching a specific number of episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

For teens and adults, that kind of planning isn’t really possible anymore. We now use smartphones to do almost everything—to coordinate family schedules, to check in with work, to hawk ideas on social media, to communicate with far-flung friends and relatives, to read the news, to watch TV. It’s not uncommon for several of those activities to overlap within one category of apps, or one app alone. The blessing and curse of Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or even Google Docs is that each commingles so many activities together. Running a stopwatch against the whole program just infects the good uses with the contagion of the bad. The total amount of time I spend on an app (or on my phone generally) isn’t the source of my angst. It’s just the deleterious nature of a portion of that time. The last thing I need is for my iPhone to tsk me with its white-screen hourglass while I’m reading a long article about science or politics. Wielding an hourglass as a sledgehammer against an app or a category of them will never get to the bottom of that problem.

And even if it did, Screen Time still makes sidestepping the limitation too easy. It’s possible to set an app-limit password, but that just adds one more layer of self-flagellation to the nuisance: failure and guilt rather than uncomfortable triumph. Compare that with more severe approaches. Famously, the writer Evgeny Morozov used to lock up his network card in a timed safe when he actually wants to get some writing done. And the distraction-management software Freedom offers a mode that won’t unlock affected apps absent a telephone-support call. If Apple has taken on the infantilizing role of a parent when it comes to device usage, it’s a pushover of one.

Even though it’s been a miserable failure for me, I’ve chosen to keep Screen Time enabled, and to tap through my app limits as a dutiful submission to a punishment I have chosen. It’s easy for me to say that I hate Twitter, even as I go along with using it. Harder is admitting that part of what I hate is that the service is somewhat useful. That actually, I also like it.

The problem isn’t that Twitter (or social media, or smartphones, or computing) is a distracting time-sink that absconds with your attention. Yes, sure, it is. But it (and social media, and smartphones, and computing) can also be a useful and necessary tool to get things done in contemporary life. Pretending that you can untwine the one from the other doesn’t help. In that regard, Screen Time does offer something truly useful: It serves as a reminder that, for now, every glance, swipe, or tap is duplicitous—improving daily life even as it also makes it worse.