Google has new apps to help users learn responsible device use—but can they actually help?

Will sealing your smartphone inside an envelope really help you learn digital self-control? Probably not, say tech detox experts.

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Google has launched three new Android app "experiments" to complement its already existing digital detox apps.

The new apps each present a novel way to avoid overusing your smartphone:

  • Screen Stopwatch turns the background of an unlocked Android device into a timer that counts up whenever the screen is unlocked;
  • Activity Bubbles adds a small bubble to your Android device's background each time the phone is unlocked. Each bubble will grow depending on how long that phone session is; and 
  • Envelope requires users to print a PDF that folds into an envelope to seal their phone away and turn it into a minimal device that only allows for calls, photos, and videos (only available for the Google Pixel 3a).

Those interested in trying them out can follow the links above to learn more about the apps, and from there click on "Launch Experiment" to be redirected to the Google Play app page.

Digital detoxing is a good idea for everyone once in a while--but is a tech company that produces the devices we're all so hooked on the right place to look for help? Bethany Baker and Natalie Sexton of A-Gap, a nonprofit that aims to help people reduce their addiction to tech, don't think so.

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"These apps are a great first step, but only if you already have a good relationship with technology," Sexton said. Those who aren't aware that their smartphone use has reached excessive levels aren't necessarily going to be able to use an app to curb overuse.

A study covered by TechRepublic sister site CNET backs Sexton and Baker up: It found that 54% of people who tried cutting back on tech didn't end up spending less time on their devices. 

The key to building a healthy relationship with technology isn't to use it to help you cut back, but to do a "digital reset," said Baker.

A-Gap offers weekend camps where participants can get back to nature and set aside gadgets, and at the end of the event can look at their smartphones with new eyes. 

"Picking up your phone after not using it for three days can help you realize it was becoming a crutch," Baker said. 

Practical ways to reduce your smartphone addiction

A-Gap's retreats aren't expensive, but if they aren't located in your neck of the woods attending one might not be practical. That doesn't mean you can't have your own cold-turkey weekend, or even follow some practical tips for making tech less of a distraction and more of a tool.

"We understand that tech isn't going away, and we don't want it to," Baker said. "What we do want to do is help people understand that overuse can be harmful and help them establish a healthier relationship with the tech in their lives."

To do so, Baker offers the following non-app based tips:

  • Embrace the joy of missing out (JOMO): Get rid of online noise, social media pressure, and digital distraction, and substitute it with real-world experiences like volunteering or starting a new hobby.
  • Challenge yourself to go longer and longer periods without your phone--the goal should be a whole weekend.
  • Build mini-detoxes into your day, like no phones during meal time, or no social media after 6 pm.
  • Go for a walk to experience nature and get back to living in the present by leaving your smartphone at home.
  • Embrace digital minimalism by substituting digital engagements like texts and facetime for hanging out in person (without your phone).
  • Fight "phubbing," or ignoring the person with you in favor of your phone, but not allowing yourself to use it when you're with a friend or loved one.
  • Leave your phone across the room and turn off notifications--that way you're forced to put forth effort to check it.
  • Don't sleep in the same room as your phone.
  • Limit screen time before going to bed and when you first wake up in the morning. This can help you sleep better, and it makes you more focused on the present when you wake up.
  • Find a club, group, or social hobby that gets you away from your phone.

If you want to have a healthy relationship with tech the first step is to learn to experience life without it. Once you know what it's like to enjoy the world without tech it's easier to use apps like Google's new ones to keep you in a good place rather than expecting your phone to help you improve.


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