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Addicted to Apps

Ever wondered how long you spend on your smartphone each day? There’s an app for that… Ok, the Apple slogan doesn’t quite ring true in this case — it’s a feature within Settings rather than an app in itself — but Screen Time on the iPhone has cracked the case of deciphering where your lost hours are spent, and in impressively granular detail.

Released as a key feature of iOS 12 in September 2018, Screen Time tracks how many times you pick up your phone during a specified period (“today” or “last 7 days”), dwell time on websites (recorded by specific sites and broader categories) and the number of notifications you receive.


App categories include Social Networking, Games, Entertainments, Creativity, Productivity, Education, Reading & Reference (a personal favourite, it would seem!), Health & Fitness and Other. A simplistic stacked bar chart greets you on loading, coupled with the total duration in hours and minutes.

A cartoon collage of various icons and illustrations on a multi-coloured background, each contained within individual rectangles. The icons include media controls, speech bubbles, a handbag, earrings, stars, a globe, and various others representing daily life and technology themes.

I found Screen Time fascinating when iOS 12 first launched. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I have a soft spot for statistics and metrics. But now? Not so much. If anything, it provides a brutal — nay, terrifying — reminder of not only how reliant I am on technology but how dominant and unrelenting a force it is in both my work and personal life. 


Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube. These are all hugely popular, social apps that undoubtedly dominate Screen Time trackers worldwide. But what about Health apps? Are they addictive too, or do they provide too much of a reality check to warrant regular use? 


In the same way that you might avoid the bathroom scales after a particularly gluttonous episode, Screen Time is a visual (often damning) representation of overconsumption. In a similar vein, Health apps can often tell you what you don’t want to hear: you’ve exceeded your calorie intake, you’ve only walked 100 steps today, your sleep patterns are highly irregular and bad for you. 


They act as that inner voice that tells you two cream cakes are excessive, but which you choose to ignore. Whether it’s an innate sense of rebellion dictating your decisions or a wilful disregard for your own wellbeing, that voice is often drowned out by an internal monologue of misplaced, unfounded assurances — “have another chocolate, you’ve earned it”, “you’re much more fun when you’re drunk…”, “you can never have too many Sonos speakers…”


These nonsensical affirmations sound all too familiar. And that is, for me, why it’s imperative that Health apps are embraced, not ignored. 

A cartoon image of Mike clutching a smartphone. He is surrounded by other icons of tech: a smartphone camera, a microphone, a GPS chip, the Bluetooth symbol, an aerial strength signal and a microchip.

In my line of work, a significant proportion of my role is dedicated to developing scalable, health-related tech solutions — computer applications which help users to better monitor and manage their ailments.


Conversely, addiction to smartphones and social media is often considered harmful to mental health and general wellbeing. Children’s obsession with iPads and gaming consoles results in them leading sedentary, indoor lifestyles more akin to agoraphobics or hermits. 

Mark Manson, in his 2016 book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, muses on the detrimental impact of increased connectivity:


"Now here’s the problem: Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences — anxiety, fear, guilt, etc. — is totally not okay. I mean, if you look at your Facebook feed, everybody there is having a f**king grand old time. Look, eight people got married this week! And some sixteen-year-old on TV got a Ferrari for her birthday. And another kid just made two billion dollars inventing an app that automatically delivers you more toilet paper when you run out." 


He continues:


"…making many of us [feel] overly stressed, overly neurotic, and overly self-loathing... Now if you feel like sh*t for even five minutes, you’re bombarded with 350 images of people totally happy and having amazing f**king lives, and it’s impossible to not feel like there’s something wrong with you."


He’s not wrong.


With impressionable teenagers (and adults!) spending hour after hour poring over Instagram shots of super-skinny models and reality TV stars with perfect hair and make-up, it’s not at all surprising that their view of reality can become radically distorted. And quickly.


Yet within this deeply troubling and dark space, a light radiates in the form of Health apps. Away from the falsehoods of social media and marketing campaigns, lie the truths that can help facilitate a healthier and happier way of life — but you must be willing to accept them.


It’s one thing to know you should be more active. It’s another thing entirely for an app to tell you you’re 9,900 steps away from the minimum recommended daily step count. But if you’re willing to face reality head on — and do something about it — then there’s a whole treasure trove of transformative tech awaiting you in the app store…


A cartoon depicting a figure running atop a colourful iPad screen as though it's a treadmill.

Here are some of my favourite iOS health apps:

1. Calm

Marketed as the number one app for meditation and mindfulness, Calm offers numerous guided meditations to help manage anxiety, reduce stress and sleep better. I use the sleep section most — the readings by Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey are excellent at helping me sleep. There are likely others which are great too, I’ve just not needed them so far!


2. Activity

I’m a big fan of my Apple Watch and use this app to track my movement and activity from day to day.


3. Strava

There is no shortage of activity tracking apps out there, but Strava really has the edge. It’s widely used by athletes who share a wealth of activity stats. In 2018, more than a third of London Marathon runners shared their race on Strava! I have it connected to my Peloton training bike. 


4. MyFitnessPal

Like Strava, MyFitnessPal allows users to track and share activity stats and calorie intake. I’m not an everyday user, but have been drawn in from time to time when a friend wants a bit of “friendly” competition to hold them to account.


5. AutoSleep 

One of the most in-depth sleep apps for the Apple Watch, AutoSleep tracks and provides an instant overview of how you slept last night, including the amount of time you spent sleeping, quality of sleep and how long it took you to nod off. A simple experiment showed me how even a little alcohol dramatically impacts my quality of sleep. This prompted me to cut down drastically and I now rarely drink during the week.


6. Breathe

The Apple Watch’s Breathe app helps you to relax and focus on your breathing, guiding you through a series of deep breaths with an almost hypnotic animation. It’s a great way to track and demonstrate the value of taking a time-out.


7. Oak

One of the best meditation apps to help with relaxation and concentration, Oak offers simple and easy-to-follow meditation and breathing exercises which can be squeezed in even when you have only a few seconds to spare!



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