Android’s “Focus Mode” makes smart sense for digital wellbeing

Google’s “focus mode” for Android phones is coming out of beta testing and will be rolled out to devices running Android 9 and 10. Designed to reduce digital distraction, this new focus mode is possibly the most useful and evidence-backed digital wellbeing feature to date.

Focus mode is a simple feature that allows you to toggle off (silence) apps when you want to focus on what you’re doing. It’s accessed via the digital wellbeing app (and hidden in a submenu called “ways to disconnect”), which allows you to set apps you want to toggle off when you want to focus. In focus mode, the apps that you have selected appear greyed out on your phone, and their activity is silenced.

What’s interesting about focus mode (in comparison to other digital wellbeing features) is that focus mode builds on a leading theory of digital wellbeing – how digital technology can affect our personal wellbeing.

This theory is called the ‘displacement effect‘ (or “displacement hypothesis:) and is based on the idea that screentime can distract you from and displace activities known to be good for you and your wellbeing (such as nurturing relationships, pursuing our goals, looking after our body and getting good sleep).

In other words, it’s not that screentime is inherently bad for you, but that is may displace or replace activities known to be food for you.

Although the size, significance or reality of the displacement effect are all contested (as are all theories and associated evidence regarding the potential effect of digital technology on wellbeing), the displacement effect draws on an established and well-investigated model of media effects (e.g. Robert Putman’s ‘bowling alone‘ theory).

In sum, by helping you focus on who and what matters to you, Google’s focus mode has the potential to reduce digital distraction and the displacement effect.

If focus mode evolves to become a more prominent home screen-option, and the displacement effect is validated, then Google’s focus mode could have a significant impact on the wellbeing of millions of people.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.