I was on Instagram the other day when I discovered a new feature. The feature tracks your daily screen time spent on Instagram, paired with a customizable reminder that lets you know when you’ve spent too much time on the app. I found this feature very interesting, because it seems to go against the business model of Instagram. You would think that Instagram would want to get its users to spend the maximum amount of time possible on their app, as that results in more seen ads and more revenue.
I thought about why instagram would do this for a while. What’s their incentive? Are they just trying to do the right thing for their users, or is this somehow going to result in more revenue for them? I landed on a theory. This new feature could kill two birds with one stone. The first “bird” would be the fact that this is a great PR move for Instagram. This new feature is addressing a problem that most of us are very aware of, which is our addiction to our phones. While we are aware of this problem, I don’t know that many people who are actually fighting it in their own lives—yet. I think that we are going to get to a point where many people will feel very uncomfortable with the amount of time spent on their phones, and at that point, apps that we spend the most time on become the enemy. Instead of standing idly by to witness this shift, Instagram has offered a solution, or an aide, to the problem. Now Instagram doesn’t necessarily become the enemy, as they have been proactive about fixing the problem. Instagram wants its users to enjoy their experience on the app without feeling guilty about it. If users are under their daily time limit, they are worry-free in terms of their usage of the app. Users in that worry-free mindset might be more valuable to advertisers than other users.
This takes us to the second “bird” of this theory, which is getting the most money out of each user with the least usage possible. Think about how ads on Instagram work. Where do you see ads/promoted posts on Instagram? Typically only on your feed and between Stories. If you are on your feed, you are only going to scroll until you see a post you’ve already seen. This is a finite amount of time, since there is a clear stopping point for users. For most people, if they only scrolled through their feed and looked at stories, they would have clear stopping points and would use the app much less. The extra time that people spend, the time that Instagram is trying to cut out, is the time spent looking at people’s profiles and on the discover page: places where you typically don’t find ads. I think Instagram is trying to get people to prioritize areas of the app that feature ads. By doing this, Instagram doesn’t have to start putting ads on your friends’ profiles, something that I think would catch some backlash.
Instagram isn’t the only company to implement a time management feature like this. With Apple’s new iOS update, they have introduced their own “Screen Time” feature, which allows users to monitor their screen time on each app as well as setting daily limits to their usage of each app. Apple’s motivation is probably very similar to Instagram’s, which is to offer a solution before they are seen as the problem. As the effort to manage our smart phone addictions gains momentum, I will be interested to see how far tech companies will go to “help” us for good PR.