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Why Are Instagram and YouTube Telling Us to Get Offline?

by Katie Moritz
August 30, 2018 | Our Future

If you've been on Instagram in the past few days—and, let's be real, a majority of Instagram users check it at least once a day—you might have gotten notice that you'll soon be able to know exactly how much time you're spending on the app. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones who already has access to this tool since it started rolling out to users August 1.

Close up of a hand holding a smart phone with notification settings visible. Rewire PBS Our Future Get Offline
The YouTube app will now ping you when you've watched videos for too long.

If you're anything like me, after you got over your horror at the thought of knowing just how much scrolling you're doing, you started to wonder: Why would brands like Instagram, Facebook, Apple and YouTube—all of which are jumping onto this trend—want to remind users to take a break from their platforms? After all, these sites make money by serving us with ads.

"It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re having fun, which is why we’ll help you set up a reminder to take a break," a recent post to YouTube's official blog reads. "Just head over to your settings and pick the amount of YouTube time that’s right for you. Once you’ve hit that limit, a friendly reminder will pop up on your screen."

Do these companies genuinely care about us? Or is there another reason they're starting to help us manage our social media time?

It's probably a combination of factors, experts say. Altruism is part of it, but there are benefits to the companies, too.

"While Instagram and YouTube make money from people using them, the amount of time spent on the respective sites isn't necessarily a direct relationship with how much money is made," said Alon Popilskis, a digital marketing consultant with Smart SEO Designs. For example, "the more time spent on Instagram doesn't necessarily mean more ad clicks and money coming back to Instagram."

Money move

In fact, users spending less time on the platforms might mean more ad revenue for them. It's kind of like a quality over quantity thing. And it's linked to our online behaviors.

"The idea is that by reducing the amount of time consumers spend on their platforms, they can reduce passive consumption and content fatigue," Popilskis said. "This in turn will make users more active recipients to ads, which is what these companies really want.

"Basically, get people to spend less time on site so that they (have) more meaningful interactions—users are more in tune and then more likely to focus on the ads being presented."

This might relieve some of the pressure creators feel to be posting content constantly, he said, meaning better content for users and less burnout on the part of content creators.

On top of being less lucrative, mindless scrolling likely isn't good for our mental health.

In January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote "research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. ... On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos—even if they're entertaining or informative—may not be as good.”

He announced that one of Facebook's big goals for 2018 was to make "sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent" and that our feeds would be changed to reflect that. This was an "evolution of his previous primary preoccupation of total time spent on the website," said Gracie Page, creative technologist at Y&R LDN.

"Shortly after that announcement, Zuckerberg stated that people were spending less time on Facebook, and that that was a 'good thing,'" said Mark Traphagen, content strategy director at Perficient Digital. "Why? Because their testing had revealed that the quality rather than the quantity of time spent on Facebook was more closely correlated with profitability."

YouTube and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, seem to be following suit.

"They’re just trying a different approach than Facebook to reach the same goal," Traphagen said. "Rather than radically altering their user feeds, they are allowing users to get a better picture of their own usage, which they probably believe will lead to better self-regulation of the time those users spend on social media, resulting in happier, more engaged, users when they are present."

Good PR

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, social media sites have been struggling with public image. Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress in April didn't help.

The addition of "digital wellbeing" tools—and publicizing these tools—is a good way to make these companies seem a little less sinister, said Stacy Caprio, founder of Accelerated Growth Marketing.

"They want to reduce the perception that they are 'bad' or 'addictive,' so they provide tools that make them look better as though they are trying to help, even though they know people won't really use the tools to improve their behavior," she said.

Young tourists searching for location both on mobile phone and map. Rewire PBS Our Future Get Offline
Social media companies reminding you how long you've been on their site may have less to do with you than with their image. But it's still a helpful reminder.

Companies hope that showing their softer sides will assuage growing fears around the way we spend time online.

"Data and internet privacy is a scary thing for the general public who are unaware of how companies use their data," said Levi Olmstead, community manager at G2 Crowd. "YouTube, Instagram, Facebook all are in marketing campaigns to rebrand their image to make it clear that they are here for their users' best interest. These tracking tools help suggest to their platform's users that they are here with that in mind."

Some in the industry believe the reasoning behind these changes stops here—that brands hopping on the "time well spent" train are doing it purely for the sake of their damaged brands.

"If they really cared about this issue, they would remove features that hook their users—likes, sharing, favorites, suggested media—instead of just making people feel even worse about themselves by showing them how addicted to their apps they are," said Dary Merckens, chief technology officer at Gunner Technology. "But they know their users are so hooked that seeing how much time they spend won't make a lick of difference. ... This is just a shameless publicity campaign. Nothing more, nothing less."

Blatant PR move or not, forced mindfulness of our social media usage could precipitate positive change.

"The mindful movement, the 'slow' movement, the unplug movement and a general worsening of mental health around the world in first world countries... is directly attributable to the use of social media," Page said.

"When we consider that these companies are re-defining their goals to be more humane... this shift to help consumers build a happier and healthier relationship with the platforms they've grown to love not only seems to be wise, but in fact the only viable business solution to a growing consumer understanding that they need to re-claim the time they spend with digital tech."

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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