Wellness has gained significant traction over the last several years, but the momentum has mostly stemmed from Goop-like lifestyle brands or individual apps like Headspace. Now Apple, Google and Instagram are implementing wellness concepts into their own software to course-correct after being criticized for how their platforms have been linked to addiction, hate speech and crimes, in addition to general poor mental health.
With approximately 40 percent of the world’s population, or 3 billion people, spending an average of two hours on social media apps, according to several reports, the potential impacts quickly add up. And wellness, despite its own criticisms, is a bonafide consumer vertical now, with more than 156,000 health and wellness apps available.
At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, the company released a digital health dashboard for its iOS 12, designed to help curb smartphone overuse. There is a Do Not Disturb feature for when you are going to bed, group notifications so you aren’t inundated by too many lock-screen bubbles and a timer indicating how long you should use certain apps daily.
Additionally, at the annual Google I/O conference in May, the company debuted a time-management tool for Android users to help manage screen time, track app usage and limit the phone’s ability to distract, including a “shush,” which turns on Do Not Disturb when the phone is flipped over, and a “wind down,” color reduction mode for bedtime.
“Some of these recent issues and scandals have impacted brand image,” said Gloria Gibbons, global practice leader at Ogilvy Health & Wellness, adding that the social corporate responsibility emerging out of Silicon Valley is reminiscent of the kind tobacco companies introduced when the public understood the impact tobacco products were having on their health.
And as image-centric platforms like Instagram have been linked to mental health problems, it makes sense that the issue of wellness would increasingly come into play. In May, the Facebook-owned app released a feature that alerts users when they are all caught up, to avoid the endless zombie-scrolling behavior. And there is a large number of other time-monitoring apps on the App Store, like Moment, Toggl, Harvest and Timely — but, of course, hegemonic tech companies like Facebook adopting the same feature may soon make those apps irrelevant. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, the top 10 self-care apps in the U.S. earned $15 million in revenue in the States and $27 million worldwide, according to research from the market intelligence firm Sensor Tower.
Ritesh Patel, chief digital officer at Ogilvy, said there are currently three categories of technology wellness providers: the phone and computer makers like Apple and Google, large social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, and individual wellness apps.
“Apple has always been a leader in this space — in how to balance using the phone with safety,” he said. Apple maintains control over its OS as Apple produces its own phones, whereas Android manufacturers have more liberty to deploy certain features from Google’s OS.
Meanwhile, “the [social media] app guys are more about giving you the information you need in order to make the decision,” without actually dictating what users do, he said. And dedicated apps have the idea of wellness embedded in their ethos.
At the same time, there are questions about whether these features are valuable, or even accurate. Should tech companies be the arbiters of what is good and healthy for people? And if they have failed to self-regulate from their onset, can they properly regulate their users? Gibbons said regulation in the form of guidelines from non-government organizations and tech companies with evidence-based information may be helpful.
“I think if we can better understand how to use the tech, there will be so many opportunities to help us live longer and better lives, but right now we’re all still just playing with it,” she said.