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We finally started taking screen time seriously in 2018 – TechCrunch

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At the beginning of this year, I was using my iPhone to browse new titles on Amazon when I saw the cover of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price. I downloaded it on Kindle because I genuinely wanted to reduce my smartphone use, but also because I thought it would be hilarious to read a book about breaking up with your smartphone on my smartphone (stupid, I know). Within a couple of chapters, however, I was motivated enough to download Moment, a screen-time-tracking app recommended by Price, and re-purchase the book in print.

Early in “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” Price invites her readers to take the Smartphone Compulsion Test, developed by David Greenfield, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut who also founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. The test has 15 questions, but I knew I was in trouble after answering the first five. Humbled by my very high score, which I am too embarrassed to disclose, I decided it was time to get serious about curtailing my smartphone usage.

Of the chapters in Price’s book, the one called “Putting the Dope in Dopamine” resonated with me the most. She writes that “phones and most apps are deliberately designed without ‘stopping cues’ to alert us when we’ve had enough—which is why it’s so easy to accidentally binge. On a certain level, we know that what we’re doing is making us feel gross. But instead of stopping, our brains decide the solution is to seek out more dopamine. We check our phones again. And again. And again.”

Gross was exactly how I felt. I bought my first iPhone in 2011 (and owned an iPod Touch before that). It was the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. I would claim it was because I wanted to check work stuff, but really I was on autopilot. Thinking about what I could have accomplished over the past eight years if I hadn’t been constantly attached to my smartphone made me feel queasy. I also wondered what it had done to my brain’s feedback loop. Just as sugar changes your palate, making you crave more and more sweets to feel sated, I was worried that the incremental doses of immediate gratification my phone doled out would diminish my ability to feel genuine joy and pleasure.

Price’s book was published in February, at the beginning of a year when it feels like tech companies finally started to treat excessive screen time as a liability (or at least do more than pay lip service to it). In addition to the introduction of Screen Time in iOS 12 and Android’s digital well-being tools, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all launched new features that allow users to track time spent on their sites and apps.

Early this year, influential activist investors who hold Apple shares also called for the company to focus on how their devices impact kids. In a letter to Apple, hedge fund Jana Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) wrote “social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged,” adding that “it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.”

The growing mound of research

Then in November, researchers at Penn State released an important new study that linked social media usage by adolescents to depression. Led by psychologist Melissa Hunt, the experimental study monitored 143 students with iPhones from the university for three weeks. The undergraduates were divided into two groups: one was instructed to limit their time on social media, including Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, to just 10 minutes each app per day (their usage was confirmed by checking their phone’s iOS battery use screens). The other group continued using social media apps as they usually did. At the beginning of the study, a baseline was established with standard tests for depression, anxiety, social support and other issues, and each group continued to be assessed throughout the experiment.

The findings, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, were striking. The researchers wrote that “the limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group.”

Even the control group benefited, despite not being given limits on their social media use. “Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baselines, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring,” the study said. “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes a day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”

Other academic studies published this year added to the growing roster of evidence that smartphones and mobile apps can significantly harm your mental and physical well-being.

A group of researchers from Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Texas at Austin, and Stanford published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found using smartphones to take photos and videos of an experience actually reduces the ability to form memories of it. Others warned against keeping smartphones in your bedroom or even on your desk while you work. Optical chemistry researchers at the University of Toledo found that blue light from digital devices can cause molecular changes in your retina, potentially speeding macular degeneration.

So over the past 12 months, I’ve certainly had plenty of motivation to reduce my screen time. In fact, every time I checked the news on my phone, there seemed to be yet another headline about the perils of smartphone use. I began using Moment to track my total screen time and how it was divided between apps. I took two of Moment’s in-app courses, “Phone Bootcamp” and “Bored and Brilliant.” I also used the app to set a daily time limit, turned on “tiny reminders,” or push notifications that tell you how much time you’ve spent on your phone so far throughout the day, and enabled the “Force Me Off When I’m Over” feature, which basically annoys you off your phone when you go over your daily allotment.

At first I managed to cut my screen time in half. I had thought some of the benefits, like a better attention span mentioned in Price’s book, were too good to be true. But I found my concentration really did improve significantly after just a week of limiting my smartphone use. I read more long-form articles, caught up on some TV shows, and finished knitting a sweater for my toddler. Most importantly, the nagging feeling I had at the end of each day about frittering all my time away diminished, and so I lived happily after, snug in the knowledge that I’m not squandering my life on memes, clickbait and makeup tutorials.

Just kidding.

Holding my iPod Touch in 2010, a year before I bought my first smartphone and back when I still had an attention span.

After a few weeks, my screen time started creeping up again. First I turned off Moment’s “Force Me Off” feature, because my apartment doesn’t have a landline and I needed to be able to check texts from my husband. I kept the tiny reminders, but those became easier and easier to ignore. But even as I mindlessly scrolled through Instagram or Reddit, I felt the existentialist dread of knowing that I was misusing the best years of my life. With all that at stake, why is limiting screen time so hard?

I wish I knew how to quit you, small device

I decided to talk to the CEO of Moment, Tim Kendall, for some insight. Founded in 2014 by UI designer and iOS developer Kevin Holesh, Moment recently launched an Android version, too. It’s one of the best known of a genre that includes Forest, Freedom, Space, Off the Grid, AntiSocial and App Detox, all dedicated to reducing screen time (or at least encouraging more mindful smartphone use).

Kendall told me that I’m not alone. Moment has 7 million users and “over the last four years, you can see that average usage goes up every year,” he says. By looking at overall data, Moment’s team can tell that its tools and courses do help people reduce their screen time, but that often it starts creeping up again. Combating that with new features is one of the company’s main goals for next year.

“We’re spending a lot of time investing in R&D to figure out how to help people who fall into that category. They did Phone Bootcamp, saw nice results, saw benefits, but they just weren’t able to figure out how to do it sustainably,” says Kendall. Moment already releases new courses regularly (recent topics have included sleep, attention span, and family time) and recently began offering them on a subscription basis.

“It’s habit formation and sustained behavior change that is really hard,” says Kendall, who previously held positions as president at Pinterest and Facebook’s director of monetization. But he’s optimistic. “It’s tractable. People can do it. I think the rewards are really significant. We aren’t stopping with the courses. We are exploring a lot of different ways to help people.”

As Jana Partners and CalSTRS noted in their letter, a particularly important issue is the impact of excessive smartphone use on the first generation of teenagers and young adults to have constant access to the devices. Kendall notes that suicide rates among teenagers have increased dramatically over the past two decades. Though research hasn’t explicitly linked time spent online to suicide, the link between screen time and depression has been noted many times already, as in the Penn State study.

But there is hope. Kendall says that the Moment Coach feature, which delivers short, daily exercises to reduce smartphone use, seems to be particularly effective among millennials, the generation most stereotypically associated with being pathologically attached to their phones. “It seems that 20- and 30-somethings have an easier time internalizing the coach and therefore reducing their usage than 40- and 50-somethings,” he says.

Kendall stresses that Moment does not see smartphone use as an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead, he believes that people should replace brain junk food, like social media apps, with things like online language courses or meditation apps. “I really do think the phone used deliberately is one of the most wonderful things you have,” he says.

Researchers have found that taking smartphone photos and videos during an experience may decrease your ability to form memories of it. (Steved_np3/Getty Images)

I’ve tried to limit most of my smartphone usage to apps like Kindle, but the best solution has been to find offline alternatives to keep myself distracted. For example, I’ve been teaching myself new knitting and crochet techniques, because I can’t do either while holding my phone (though I do listen to podcasts and audiobooks). It also gives me a tactile way to measure the time I spend off my phone because the hours I cut off my screen time correlate to the number of rows I complete on a project. To limit my usage to specific apps, I rely on iOS Screen Time. It’s really easy to just tap “Ignore Limit,” however, so I also continue to depend on several of Moment’s features.

While several third-party screen time tracking app developers have recently found themselves under more scrutiny by Apple, Kendall says the launch of Screen Time hasn’t significantly impacted Moment’s business or sign ups. The launch of their Android version also opens up a significant new market (Android also enables Moment to add new features that aren’t possible on iOS, including only allowing access to certain apps during set times).

The short-term impact of iOS Screen Time has “been neutral, but I think in the long-term it’s really going to help,” Kendall says. “I think in the long-term it’s going to help with awareness. If I were to use a diet metaphor, I think Apple has built a terrific calorie counter and scale, but unfortunately they have not given people nutritional guidelines or a regimen. If you talk to any behavioral economist, not withstanding all that’s been said about the quantified self, numbers don’t really motivate people.”

Guilting also doesn’t work, at least not for the long-term, so Moment tries to take “a compassionate voice,” he adds. “That’s part of our brand and company and ethos. We don’t think we’ll be very helpful if people feel judged when we use our product. They need to feel cared for and supported, and know that the goal is not perfection, it’s gradual change.”

Many smartphone users are probably in my situation: alarmed by their screen time stats, unhappy about the time they waste, but also finding it hard to quit their devices. We don’t just use our smartphones to distract ourselves or get a quick dopamine rush with social media likes. We use it to manage our workload, keep in touch with friends, plan our days, read books, look up recipes, and find fun places to go. I’ve often thought about buying a Yondr bag or asking my husband to hide my phone from me, but I know that ultimately won’t help.

As cheesy as it sounds, the impetus for change must come from within. No amount of academic research, screen time apps, or analytics can make up for that.

One thing I tell myself is that unless developers find more ways to force us to change our behavior or another major paradigm shift occurs in mobile communications, my relationship with my smartphone will move in cycles. Sometimes I’ll be happy with my usage, then I’ll lapse, then I’ll take another Moment course or try another screen time app, and hopefully get back on track. In 2018, however, the conversation around screen time finally gained some desperately needed urgency (and in the meantime, I’ve actually completed some knitting projects instead of just thumbing my way through #knittersofinstagram).

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Apple returns to No. 1 as global smartphone shipments grapple with supply chain concerns – TechCrunch

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Supply chain issues continue to have a major impact on smartphone manufacturers per newly released figures from analyst firm Canalys — global shipments grew only 1% year over year in the final quarter of 2021. The numbers come on the tail of Q3 reports, which saw an overall drop of 6%, citing similar issues over component supply.

The firm also factors in a resurgence of COVID-19, courtesy of the omicron variant, which has sent a number of locals into shutdown reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days roughly two years ago. Canalys notes that this impact is greatest among the smaller manufacturers in the market, who have had the greatest issues finding new suppliers.

“Component manufacturers are eking out additional production, but it will take years for major foundries to significantly increase chip capacity,” the firm’s Mobility VP Nicole Peng said in a statement tied to the new figures. “Smartphone brands are already innovating to make the most of their circumstances, tweaking device specs in response to available materials, approaching emerging chipmakers to secure new sources for ICs, focusing product lines on the best-selling models and staggering new product releases.”

Image Credits: Canalys

Larger companies remain less impacted overall by shortages and bottlenecks. The quarter also saw Apple return to the overall top spot in the global market, after three quarters away. The company’s rise is attributed to the success of the iPhone 13 and an extremely solid performance in Mainland China — the world’s largest smartphone market.

Apple’s overall marketshare ticked up from 12% to 23% of the market since last quarter. The previous drop owed in part, to the company’s trouble meeting demand in a number of regions in recent quarters.

“Apple’s supply chain is starting to recover, but it was still forced to cut production in Q4 amid shortages of key components and could not make enough iPhones to meet demand,” says analyst Sanyam Chaurasia. “In prioritized markets, it maintained adequate delivery times, but in some markets its customers had to wait to get their hands on the latest iPhones.”

Samsung, meanwhile, dropped to second, from 23% to 20% of the total market. Chinese manufacturers Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo rounded out the top five for Q4.

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Block’s Cash App adopts Lightning Network for free bitcoin payments – TechCrunch

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Late last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down from his position in order to give his full attention to his other company Square, now called Block, which had become increasingly invested in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency — just like Dorsey himself. Now we’re starting to see the results of Block’s embrace of crypto, as this morning Cash App announced it’s integrated with the Lightning Network, allowing its U.S. users to send bitcoin for free to anyone worldwide.

The feature had been slowly rolling out to Cash App customers before today, but Cash App had not yet made a formal announcement. The company says the rollout is expected to complete over the “coming weeks,” reaching all U.S. Cash App customers.

Once live, Cash App users will be able to send bitcoin internationally to any external compatible wallet, including those for family or friends or a self-managed wallet, like Chivo Wallet, BlueWallet, or Muun Wallet, for example. Users will also be able to send bitcoin to any merchant that accepts Lightning Network payments, with zero fees. While this isn’t yet a mainstream activity, a few merchants have begun to accept Lightning payments, allowing customers to do things like order a pizza over the Lightning Network or buy gift cards.

The Lightning Network’s integration into Cash App could also help to empower the growing creator economy, as fans could send bitcoin to show their support for an individual creator or cause if they accepted Lightning payments. 

Cash App explains the advantages of this system, noting that typical Bitcoin network transactions can take some time to process and see higher fees, compared with Lightning Network — whose name is meant to convey its speedier capabilities. Its transactions also take place independently of the blockchain (off-chain), which helps to reduce the fees, time, and energy usage that would otherwise be involved. But the Lightning Network will still benefit from the blockchain’s technology and decentralization, as the transactions taking place on the network are later consolidated and recorded to the main Bitcoin blockchain.

Dorsey himself had demonstrated interest in the Lightning Network, tweeting back in 2019 that it was a “cool example” of the experimentation taking place among #BitcoinTwitter users. More recently, Block’s bitcoin-focused company, Spiral, presented its Lightning Development Kit (LDK) which offers a way to easily integrate bitcoin payments into any application. The new Lightning integration on Cash App is also powered by Spiral’s LDK — and Cash App is also the first and largest payments app to integrate with LDK at this time, the company notes.

The rollout of LDK is also an example of Block’s strategic vision in action, where one arm may build the tools that are adopted by other Block-owned businesses.

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Kenyan low-cost ISP Poa Internet secures $28 million in round led by AfDB-backed Africa50, plans to link region with cheap, limit-free connectivity

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In 2020, Africa50, an infrastructure financier backed by the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) Group and a good number of African governments, hosted an innovation challenge that sought affordable and reliable solutions for last-mile internet connectivity across the continent. A proposal by Poa Internet, a Kenyan startup beat 673 others from across the world as a result of which it was added to Africa50’s investment pipeline in addition to winning a cash prize.

Slightly over one year after the win, the internet service provider (ISP) has received $28 million in a Series C funding round led by Africa50, bringing the total amount it has raised to date to $36 million. Also participating in the latest round was Novastar Ventures, one of the firm’s earliest backers.

Poa plans to use the new funding to grow its reach, first across Kenya then progressively to other countries in the continent.

“We are focused on Kenya at the moment, but the problem we’re solving is continent-wide. And for us, it’s not just about getting people some connectivity. Our aim is to get a lot of people online and to give them a meaningful internet experience like the ability to stream videos, without worrying about how much data they’re consuming,” Poa Internet’s CEO and founder, Andy Halsall, told TechCrunch.

Poa Internet currently serves over 12,000 customers (homes and small businesses) in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. The startup has laid out its fiber network in neighborhoods that are typically not the first target markets for its competitors like Safaricom Home by East Africa’s biggest telco Safaricom, Faiba by Jamii Telecommunication Limited and Zuku.

Poa Internet founding team from left to right: Mike Puchol (CTO), Andy Halsall (CEO), Chris Rhodes (COO) and DJ Koeman (CBDO). Image Credits: Poa Internet

Poa Internet charges its customers a monthly fee of about $13, which is half the market rate, giving it a competitive edge. Its customers also have unlimited data usage, another aspect that makes their products attractive to internet users in the country, where major ISPs offer monthly subscription bundles with data caps.

The startup has also set up Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas, where users pay about $0.18 for 1 GB of data, 10 times cheaper than the country’s telcos charge for a similar bundle of non-expiring internet.

“Our internet speeds are 4mbps, which is fast enough for video, because everyone wants to stream Netflix, use YouTube, download movies and make video calls. So, we’ve designed our service to be fast enough to deliver video, but most importantly, our price is a winning factor,” said Halsall.

“Our primary focus is to get the price as low as possible and to operate in the communities that don’t have fiber connectivity or are unlikely to get fiber. Therefore, we’re not really going to compete really against anyone because we are going after a market sector that is not well served.”

Affordability remains one of the main roadblocks to internet access across the continent and Poa Internet service has been trying to solve this puzzle since it entered Kenya in 2015.

Africa, and more narrowly sub-Saharan Africa, has the most expensive internet prices in the world, and this negatively impacts on the continent’s ability to grow its digital economies and to adapt to situations like the Covid pandemic. The pandemic’s containment measures, for instance, required most people to work from home and for students to continue learning online — but this remained impractical in most countries across the continent due to the lack of necessary gadgets and internet connectivity, partly due to underdeveloped infrastructure and pricing.

Benefits of affordable data and a more connected continent are massive in that as more people get connected sectors such as e-commerce and e-learning will experience a take-off.

There were 303 million people, which is less than a third of the population, connected to the mobile internet according to the 2021 GSM Association, an industry organization representing mobile operators, mobile economy report. This figure is expected to grow to about 40% of this population by 2025. However, while mobile internet contributes a great deal in getting people online, as Halsall hinted earlier, the experience of limited connectivity is incomparable to freedom that comes with a limitless connection.

Poa Internet currently serves homes and small businesses in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. Image Credits: Poa Internet (Brian Otieno)

“Poa has been instrumental in bridging the needs of last- mile connectivity, and their ultra-low-cost solutions can be used to address the significant connectivity gaps in Kenya and across the continent as a whole. This is particularly important at a time when societies and economic activities are increasingly becoming digitized as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Africa50 managing director and head of infrastructure investments at Africa50, Raza Hasnani.

Africa50 currently has 31 shareholders including the AfDB, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), Bank Al-Maghrib (the Central Bank of the Kingdom of Morocco, and 28 African countries.

“Increasing access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity is strongly aligned with the key pillars of Africa50’s strategy, and we are excited to be part of this high impact journey and to support Poa’s growth in Africa,” said Hasnani.

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