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Facebook, Instagram Adding New Tools Aimed at Curbing Excessive Usage

Facebook and Instagram are now adding new tools designed to help users manage — and limit — how much time they spend on the platforms. The move comes after numerous reports in the past few years have found a correlation between heavy social-media usage and maladies like depression and anxiety.

Over the next few weeks, apps for both Instagram and Facebook will be updated with an activity dashboard showing total time spent in an app. The new features also will include the ability to set a daily reminder when you’ve hit a pre-set usage time limit, and a new way to suspend notifications.

“Our hope is that these tools give people more control over the time they spend on our platforms and also foster conversations between parents and teens about the online habits that are right for them,” Facebook director of research David Ginsberg and Ameet Ranadive, Instagram’s product director for well-being, wrote in a blog post.

Social-media usage has been steadily climbing: In 2018, U.S. adults are projected to spend 42 minutes per day on Facebook (up 16% since 2014) and 26 minutes on Instagram (up 44% over the last four years), according to an eMarketer research study.

And heavy usage of social media is especially prevalent among teens. According to a Pew Research Center study based on surveys conducted this spring, the proportion of teens (ages 13-17) who said they are online “almost constantly” was 45% — nearly double from its 2014-15 study on the topic.

Researchers say that social media and smartphones are leading to mental-health problems associated with heavy internet use, including forms of addiction. Critics of Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies have argued that the industry has profit incentives to design their products to be as habit-forming as possible.

Facebook itself has cited evidence that social media usage can have ill effects. For example, a 2017 study by UC San Diego and Yale researchers found that Facebook users who clicked on about four times as many links as the average person or who liked twice as many posts reported lower-than-average mental health.

The Facebook and Instagram execs said they developed the new tools in collaboration with “leading mental-health experts and organizations” and using its own research as well as user feedback.

“It’s our responsibility to talk openly about how time online impacts people — and we take that responsibility seriously,” Ginsberg and Ranadive wrote. “These new tools are an important first step, and we are committed to continuing our work to foster safe, kind and supportive communities for everyone.”

Of course, the new time-management features are entirely optional. It’s up to individual users to come to the realization that they may be spending too much time on Facebook or Instagram, to the point that it is harming their well-being — and then decide take action.

To access the new tools on Facebook or Instagram, once they become available, users can go to the settings page on either app. On Instagram, there will be an option to show “Your Activity,” while on Facebook it will appear as “Your Time on Facebook.”

At the top of the menus will be a dashboard showing a user’s average time for that app on that device, with the ability to see total time for a specific day. Below the dashboard, users will be able to set a daily reminder “to give yourself an alert when you’ve reached the amount of time you want to spend on that app for that day.”

In addition, the Facebook and Instagram apps will add a new “Mute Push Notifications” setting in the “Notification Settings” menu, to be able to shut off notifications “for a period of time when you need to focus,” according to Facebook.

Here’s what the Facebook time-management settings look like:

In announcing the new tools, Facebook cited the work it’s done already to try to address issues that social media usage can potentially lead to.

In March 2018, the company hosted the Facebook Safety Summit with more than 100 organizations, researchers, and teens to discuss topics ranging from issues of safety and technology, to how tech is affecting people’s well-being. Facebook also partnered with Scholastic and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to develop “Best Selves,” a social and emotional learning curriculum designed to give teachers lessons that help students develop pro-social behaviors.

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