Want to avoid addiction in the digital world? Scientists have a few ideas

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

BOSTON — What if apps came with a warning label that stated the duration of time spent by users daily? What if users were allowed to choose what kind of data they share with the providers of these applications? 

Those are just a few possibilities researchers proposed in a recent study analyzing dependence on digital experiences like social media and smartphones.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans claim to be online daily, of which 28% remain online constantly and 45% go online several times of the day.

As everyday experiences like reading the news, finding a date or fixing a broken appliance become increasingly attached to typing, tapping and scrolling through a catalog of applications on digital devices, researchers looked into the mechanics of what entices users to rely on social media.

Their answer: the marketers and app developers.  

“Firms are consciously creating addictive experiences,” said Berthon, one of the study’s authors. “They are aware of the harmful effects of such experiences. However, their business models are dependent upon the harvesting of your attention.”

By using tools such as notifications about what’s new and who commented on what, users are repeatedly cued to remain digitally engaged, he said. 

Over the summer, Yiwen Zhou, a freshman at Boston University, started monitoring screen time on her iPhone to reduce usage. 

“I knew I used my phone a lot,” she said while scrolling through her emails. “But 10 hours? I wasn’t expecting that.”

Zhou is among many digital consumers who unknowingly spend long hours with their phones and laptops. Sometimes, people edging on the side of excessive usage find themselves grappling with issues that push them to seek a time-out or a getaway. 

“We noticed a growth in the number of camps like Camp Grounded for adults that are designed to combat digital addiction,” said Colin Campbell, another author of the study. 

In spaces like Camp Grounded, participants are asked to turn in their devices and participate in recreational activities such as yoga, hiking and arts-based activities. The aim is to unplug from the digital world. 

Rehab centers and digital-free camps geared towards treating digital addiction are already in vogue in countries like South Korea and China. In South Korea, the government intervened and introduced a Cinderella Act or a Shutdown law that bars children under 16 from playing online games between midnight and 6 a.m., the Washington Post reported

In the Boston area, psychiatrist Saul Rosenthal has spent years treating clients with issues related to digital addiction. “Technology is successful because it grabs our attention and takes advantage of impulsivity,” he said. In all of the clients that he has treated for digital addiction, Rosenthal said that symptoms of attention deficit and social anxiety seem to be a common occurrence. 

“When you are somebody with attention deficit disorder, anxiety or are an adolescent, you are starting with less effective abilities to pay attention or inhibit impulses,” he said. 

This is where Berthon, Pitt and Campbell think public policy solutions could help.

They divided policy solutions under four banners: product design, advertising and promotion, place and distribution and finally, price and cost. Under product design, the authors propose mandatory labeling and ‘stopping points’ to foster awareness and self-control. 

“Endless games and infinite scrolls would be punctuated with natural breaks, in the same way that books have chapters, providing users with cues for self-control,” wrote the study’s authors. 

A strategy involving mandatory labeling may provide information like the time spent on the app. “Such labels may vary from neutral cautions that you find on food labels stating the nutritional value, to advisory cautions on alcohol and its effects on the nervous system and to warnings on using cigarettes,” said Berthon. 

In a more extreme measure, some labels could require the producer to disclose the kind of behavioral strategies they employ to make their customers use the product again and again.

Other recommendations include information disclosures which tell consumers about the link between blue light and interruption of sleep patterns, as well as the cognitive drain that phones can have, even when they’re turned off.

Further still, the authors suggest that firms and developers disclose just how “free” some of their products are. Many free applications such as the gaming app “Clash of Clans” have certain features behind a paywall. 

The study noted that such games were dangerous because any person “hooked” to the game may purchase features in an algorithm that does not let you win unless you purchase more. The customer needs to be reminded of what they’re getting into and what they’re using, the study said.

The authors questioned the effectiveness of informational campaigns as a solution, so their emphasis lay more on consumer awareness. They suggest training front-line specialists like teachers and IT workers in mindful usage of digital experiences.

Akin to healthy eating, mindful usage of digital offerings would be a new manner of digital consumption, said Berthon. 

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