nea, an iOS app to help you regain control of your attention.

Tayyeb Rafique


Supervised by Dr Daniel J. Finnegan; Moderated by Tingting Li


In 2017 Reed Hastings, Chairperson for Netflix, announced that their biggest competitor was sleep.[i] It’s not just Netflix, big tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, all compete with a user’s free time, family time, and indeed sleep, to maximise revenue. The ‘attention economy’ – profiting by occupying the brain space of the people, has been growing and shows no signs of slowing down.[ii] Advanced AI models are being pointed at users through applications on their screens, learning the best ways to take more and more of their focus and thoughts.[iii]

In the new economy, content creators that can hold users’ attention are rewarded heavily. The biggest celebrities among young people are no longer actors or singers, but their favourite digital influencers. Rising stars like Mr Beast, churn out highly entertaining content, packed into 5–15-minute chunks, with brand advertising interwoven throughout. This type of content receives hundreds of millions of views, with his channel being valued at over 100 million dollars. His content is warming, uplifting, and instantly gratifying. There are hundreds of content creators exactly like him, being paid-per-view for producing dopamine-inducing short videos that are served to young people on an infinite scrolling platter interspersed with ads, on apps like YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and more.

What can an ordinary person do in a world where super smart algorithms being pumped full of our data and millions of pounds behind them are being tasked to keep people on their phones as much as possible? One answer is to create an AI that works for the user. Instead of your phone sending you a YouTube notification when you’re stressed out as it knows you’re likely to binge; imagine if your phone sent you a reminder about your passion project when it gathers that you’re feeling motivated and locks down so that you can put your focus on it. A particular lens by which to approach the problem is by looking at overall screen time. Screen time has been steadily increasing especially among young people and has been shown to be positively correlated to a detriment in health.[iv]

My project aims to give users more control over their use of their phones, by blocking apps for periods of time and giving reminders in other cases. It will be sufficiently challenging to create a working iOS app that can interact with a user’s apps to block them while including an interface for them to activate and time the blocking periods. To ensure it is challenging enough I will implement a basic machine learning model that will use the time of day and number of phone pickups/unlocks as parameters to optimise break times and focus periods for each individual user.

The problem: Mobile phone users are having their attention and focus taken by advanced systems that may be difficult to combat without tools of their own.

The solution:

Create an app that users may use to protect them against manipulative and addictive content delivery in their mobile apps. The app will have 3 mains aims: 1.Reduce a user’s daily active screen time. 2.Increase a user’s daily active focus time. 3.Provide insights and statistics for the user to understand their phone usage better by.

The scope:

I aim to create an iOS app that has the following capabilities: 1. Block certain apps for set periods of time.

2. Present the user’s phone usage data to them in a digestible format. 3. Create a basic machine learning model that takes a number of parameters (likely to be: Time of day, day of the week, number of phone pickups and phone unlocks) and uses them to optimise the length of focus periods and breaks to the user.

Possible Ethical Concerns: Data: User data (non-personal) must be stored and processed externally. Data will be anonymised to reduce concerns.

Initial Plan (06/02/2023) [Zip Archive]

Final Report (19/05/2023) [Zip Archive]

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