Facebook and Instagram roll out new features to help us realize when we're wasting time on the apps

Key Points
  • Facebook and Instagram will roll out features that show people how much time they've spent on the apps.
  • The effort is part of an ongoing effort to be more responsible with its community rather than push for engagement, the company tells CNBC.
  • But academics aren't convinced these features will make a difference.
People are silhouetted against the Instagram logo at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Using social media a lot won't make you feel more socially connected. Recent studies have found that people who wile away countless hours on Facebook and Instagram often feel more isolated, and are more prone to anxiety and depression.

So Facebook is rolling out new features in the coming weeks to help people manage their time on these apps. They include:

  • An activity dashboard that shows how long you're spending on Facebook or Instagram.
  • A daily reminder for when you're hitting your total time for the day.
  • A way to tune out notifications.

These tools can be accessed via the settings page on either app.

Instagram's product management director Ameet Ranadive and Facebook's director of research David Ginsberg published a blog post Wednesday describing the new features, stressing that the companies have a "responsibility" to understand how much time users are spending on these apps. They also listed a few partners that came together in March at its safety summit to discuss these issues, including school groups, researchers and academics.

Facebook is introducing new app settings to help users control how much they use it.

They noted that once these tools go mainstream, the developers will be able to study their usage and potentially roll out additional features. That might include things like comparing how much time people are spending on social media relative to their peers.

The news comes as Facebook's stock is struggling to recover from last week's second-quarter earnings report in which it lowered its outlook on revenue and raised its forecast for expenses. On an earnings call last November, CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said: "I want to be clear about what our priority is. Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits."

Zuckerberg first hinted at the company's interest in the "Time Well Spent" movement, which is led by former Google employee Tristan Harris, in January. Facebook this year also introduced other changes to its news feed to prioritize posts from friends and family. It made steps to filter out bullying or other offensive comments, although recent reports suggest that it has had mixed success with these efforts.

'A meaningful start, but ...'

Facebook is taking an important first step in helping users figure out how much time they spend on these sites. But some outside experts are skeptical that it will make an immediate difference.

"It represents a meaningful start, but it's not clear how effective the tool is going to be," said Brian A. Primack, director of the center for research on media, technology and health at the University of Pittsburgh. Primack is one of the foremost academics studying the link between social media and well-being.

Primack pointed out that it's not clear from the research that providing feedback will change behavior — if users are even aware that the features exist. Warning labels, for instance, are everywhere but aren't particularly effective in conveying information to people to balance the risks and benefits. Who's to say that kids won't challenge each other to spend more time on social media apps — and not less?

Primack is also skeptical that it's enough to measure hours spent on the platform. He pointed to research that suggests that using social media right before bed is more likely to lead to sleep disturbances and that using it in one fell swoop is often better than scattered times throughout the day. So Facebook might have more success in providing feedback on when users are on the app, and not just for how long.

The big question for the company, he suggests, will be to find a balance between helping users avoid negative health outcomes by spending too much time on the platform and violating their privacy. Some, like Time Well Spent's Harris, believe tech companies need to a step further in introducing default settings rather than expecting users to opt in.

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