New year, new start. Now is the perfect time to get your digital life under control. And while new year resolutions are cliched, there are some new year intentions that you should look at to make things a little easier and more secure for 2019 – at least when it comes to technology.
Keep an eye on screen time
Have you ever added up the amount of time you spend on your smartphone each day? In the UK, the average adult spends just under three hours a day on their phone, while those in the 18-24 age group top the four-hour mark.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that my screen usage is shocking. But before the controls mentioned below, I didn’t bother tracking it. It was certainly an eye-opener and the motivation to get it in check.
If you have an iOS device, you can not only keep an eye on your own screen time but also that of younger users linked to your family iCloud account. Go to Settings>Screen time and marvel at how much of your day you’ve wasted on social media or checking your WhatsApp groups. While you’re there, perhaps you might want to schedule in some downtime for yourself – blocking certain apps or the phone entirely from being used – or set time limits for apps.
In the latest version of its mobile operating system, Android Pie, Google built in new controls to give you a breather from your phone and its incessant notifications. It also means you can keep a close watch on your usage.
Where these tools are found will depend on what phone you have. Go to Settings and use the search bar for Digital Wellbeing. Huawei, for example, has it under Digital Balance. Google’s Pixel 3XL stashes it away under Digital Wellbeing. Like iOS, you can see how much time you are spending on apps, and then apply a few restrictions.
If you have an older version of iOS or Android, you can use some third-party apps to help cut down on your phone use.
For example, Moment will provide you with an overview of what apps you are using and for how long, how many times you pick up your phone in a day, and will offer you some tips on how to do a digital detox or have a better relationship with your phone.
If you need to go hardcore, Off the Grid completely blocks your phone according to your schedule, and if you want to get back into it early, you’ll have to pay – either by watching an ad or paying a small fee that starts at $1 and rises according to how often you use it.
Ditch the device – at least occasionally
We know that being constantly attached to our smartphones isn’t good for us, and yet we are (mostly) all guilty of it.
At the very least, we should try to dial down use of the phone before bed. Blue light emitted from screens can disrupt your sleep, and that’s the last thing anyone needs.
The simplest thing is not to use screens in the couple of hours before sleep. But phone makers have made moves to try to counteract the effect of blue light by introducing features that tint the screen for you.
Apple introduced Night Shift in an update to iOS 9, which changes the screen to a warmer tone after dark. Go to Settings>Display & Brightness>Night Shift to enable it. There is also a Bedtime feature in the clock app that will tell you when it's time to start getting ready for bed, and automatically turn on Do Not Disturb to cut out annoying notifications while you sleep.
On Android devices, you can enable similar features. On Huawei handsets, go to Settings>Digital Balance>Bedtime. This will grey out the screen during sleep hours and restrict access to apps when it is time for bed. You still keep a certain amount of control – you set the bedtime hours, and you can set a whitelist of apps that are always allowed access – but in general it encourages better habits.
On versions of Android 9 that include the Digital Wellbeing settings, it’s called Wind Down. Again, it greys out the screen and blocks app access. It also has a night light function that tints the screen amber during certain times.
If your phone doesn’t have those options, you can either download a third-party app to tint your screen amber, or invest in a pair of blue light filter glasses such as those from Ambr.
But there have been some questions raised about the effectiveness of such filters on sleep quality. So perhaps prevention – and dropping the phone use before bed – is a better option.
Lose the phone Fomo
Do you remember when every year would see people sporting a new smartphone? As soon as the latest models were announced it would be a race to get the preorders in just in case they sold out.
Things have changed. Even Apple last week said its upgrade sales weren’t what they expected for the latest generation of iPhones.
There are plenty of reasons why this is happening. It’s getting more expensive, for a start. Phone prices (sim-free) are more than €1,000 for the top-of-the-range devices. There are cheaper options, but it’s clear now that for many people it is no longer a compulsion to have the newest smartphone out there.
That’s not only good news for your pocket, but it’s also good news for the environment. Although many phones get passed to others or recycled, manufacturing new devices requires energy and some hard-to-find elements that are dangerous to mine.
So what can you do in the meantime to rejuvenate your phone?
Remove some of the unnecessary clutter on your phone. Do you really need all those apps on your phone? Or 35,000 photos and videos stored on your internal phone memory? Try freeing up some space and see how your phone fares. If you are on Android and can add a memory card, invest in a little more memory.
Swap out the battery. One of the chief reasons we hear for people changing their phone is that the battery has gone to hell. That is just the way of things though; rechargeable batteries have a shelf life. When phones had removable batteries, it was a little easier to solve that problem. But it is a relatively cheap way to give your phone a new lease of life, so hunt down your local phone repair shop and give it a try before spending hundreds of euro on a brand-new phone you may not need.
Break the social media cycle
We all know Instagram isn't real, no one documents the terrible parts of their life in 346 blurry photos on Facebook, and Twitter brings out a side of people that you never knew existed. So why do we still buy into the the social media cycle? Perhaps it's time to make a change.
If deleting your accounts sends you into a slight panic, try a halfway house: delete the apps from your phone. There will less compulsion to get caught in the endless scroll, and you’ll get more of your time back to do something a bit more productive.
Try a detox
Can you go days without social media? I’m going to hold my hands up and say no, I can’t. But some people are committed enough to try to do a 30-day detox, and for that they deserve all the credit and a supportive back pat. While I catch up on my Twitter feed.
Aside from that, 2019 should be the year we all become our own privacy experts. If there is one lesson we can take away from 2018, it’s that big companies aren’t always straight with us. Adopt a healthy dose of cynicism, and if you are in any way concerned about sharing information, don’t give it to the companies to begin with.
If you haven’t deleted your social media accounts, it might be time to review your privacy settings and lock down the most personal things to either your own view or close friends and family as much as possible.
Beef up your online security
We are all increasingly moving to digital services, which means we have more accounts, more information online and more passwords to deal with. So many passwords.
The first rule of online security: stop reusing passwords. Yes it's tempting. Yes, it would be easier if you just had one. But that leaves you open to losing everything if hackers get access to login details for one site. And while you might be very careful with your personal details, that doesn't mean every service you use is hacker-proof. In recent times, some high-profile names have been caught out by breaches – Dropbox, Netflix and Reddit have all been hit, as has LinkedIn and Sony's PlayStation Network. Stolen details could be passed around and used to access other accounts, and you are just making it easier for hackers if you use the same email and password combo for every account.
If remembering numerous passwords is problematic – and for most of us it is – try a password manager. It’s software that stores the passwords for you, and helps you generate strong passwords for each account. All you have to do is remember the strong master password that you set to access the password manager, and it will do the rest. It may seem counterintuitive to store all your passwords in one place, but security experts regularly recommend services such as Dashlane, LastPass and 1Pass.
Also, use two-factor authentication. Most online accounts offer some form of two-factor authentication, which moves security on from the simple password access to password plus a one-time code. The code is usually sent as a text or email to the details that you provide. Without the code, you can’t access the account.