Like many parents, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and well-being start-up Thrive Global, has had enough. Specifically, she has had enough of screen time. Even more specifically, she has had enough with screen time anxiety, that vague sense that phones and Netflix and kids tablet games are ruining family relationships. What is she doing to solve the problem? Well, she’s got an app for that. But hang in there. This one makes sense.
The Thrive App gives users a view of their daily app usage and allows them to set limits on that use. App users can also put their phone on “Thrive Mode” which limits notifications and incoming communication (save for a select group of user identified VIPs) and automatically responds to messages with replies that explain a person is busy thriving sans-phone for the next few hours. Huffington believes that her app will help people who want to be more present — at home, at work, and out in the world — by allowing them to explicitly prioritize or explicitly opt out rather than, you know, just worrying about it.
Huffington spoke to Fatherly about her inspiration for combating screen time and the need for tools to combat the tech community’s demand for mass attention.
What inspired you inspired to take on screen time and phone addiction?
You really can’t talk seriously about overall well-being without talking about how we use technology. Obviously, it allows us to do amazing things, but it’s also sped up the pace of our lives beyond our capacity to keep up.
What do you feel is the worst thing about the overuse of screens in the home?
The worst thing is what, and how much, we’re missing. Because every minute we spend connecting to the entire world through our screens is a minute we aren’t connecting with those in the room, with the world around us, or with ourselves. Screens are a response to our hardwired need for connection, but that doesn’t mean they leave us fulfilled – in fact, studies show just the opposite. In other words, technology is great at giving us what we want, but not always so great at giving us what we need.
Do you think that smartphones can be a useful tool for a family if used right? What are the circumstances where screen are actually helpful?
Absolutely. My phone is often a lifeline to my daughters. And, of course, video-messaging allows family members to connect and keep up with each other even while apart. Phones have greatly lowered the social costs of business trips, travel and living apart.
It’s when we’re actually together, in the same room but separated by having our heads down looking at our screens, that it becomes problematic – the phenomenon that gave rise to Sherry Turkle’s book (highly recommended): “Alone Together.”
Have you had any personal experiences with screen addiction affecting you or your family?
Definitely. A couple of years ago, I noticed that while having dinner with my daughters, who are the most precious people in my life, that I was unconsciously fumbling for my phone. It was alarming.
Over a recent Christmas holiday, I decided to do a weeklong unplugging challenge while on vacation in Hawaii with my daughters. It was definitely not easy at first. But by the end of the week, it became easier to ignore the urge to take photos of the amazing sunsets or selfies at the beaches or Instagrams at dinner and just be in the moment. It had a powerful effect not just on me, but also on my daughters, who didn’t even participate. I felt more connected to them, which meant they felt more connected to me. It was a powerful reminder that the benefits of setting boundaries with technology aren’t limited to us, but also extend to those around us. It was such a memorable vacation – even though I didn’t memorialize it digitally – that I want to reprise it.
How is the THRIVE App designed to help families curb their smartphone use?
The app helps you and your family recalibrate your relationship with technology by giving you the tools to take a break. If you’re in Thrive Mode during dinner, and I text you, I’ll get a text back that you’re in Thrive Mode until 8 pm and you’ll be able to be completely present during your family dinner without having to worry about checking your phone. Plus, our App Control dashboard provides you with a mirror of your app usage – so you can know how much time you spent on Instagram last week – and makes it easy to set goals and limits.
What kind of limits would you suggest parents setting for themselves and their children?
This is important because the most effective way parents can teach children to have a healthy relationship with technology is to model one themselves. Children learn the best through showing instead of telling. So it’s going to be hard to convince children and especially teens to look up from their screens if their parents don’t do likewise.
As far as limits themselves, families are all different, but every parent knows when screens are becoming a problem and how much is too much. Communication is key, and the children should be brought into what should be a family discussion. And it’s never too early to introduce children to healthy ground rules, like not sleeping with their phones and not checking their phones first thing in the morning.
Do you think that the mounting evidence that screen time and specifically phone time can have deleterious effects is enough to actually change people’s’ behavior?
It’s certainly changed the conversation over the course of the past year, which has seen a sea change in how we think of our relationship with technology and how aware we are of how it affects our lives. And, yes, I think it’s beginning to change behavior. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two separate things, but I think this next year is going to be the year when we start acting on what we now know.
You’ve been a driving force in digital media. And it seems that digital media is one of the reasons people can’t tear themselves away from the screen. Do you feel digital publishers have a responsibility to push their users towards smart media consumption?
Digital media has been around for a relatively long time now, but what’s changed is the level of sophistication of the technology being used to keep people from tearing themselves away from the screen. The consequences of this have caught even a lot of social media and technology executives off-guard, and in the last few months, we’ve seen many of them speaking publicly about this, joining the conversation and acknowledging the need for more responsibility. There was the letter to Apple by two shareholder groups urging the company to be more responsible specifically for children and teens, which the company positively responded to. And we’ve seen the changes being made by Facebook. We still have a long way to go, but a consensus seems to be emerging about the need for more responsibility.