Economists know how to break your phone addiction

Digital addiction is definitely a thing.
Digital addiction is definitely a thing.
Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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Debate has raged about whether digital addiction is a real affliction or something akin to a strong habit. As the evidence has accumulated, however, doctors and psychiatrists are increasingly confident classifying our digital devices as addictive, not unlike cigarettes or gambling.

Now economists are weighing in. This June, a team of economists from Harvard, Stanford, and New York universities released a white paper entitled, simply, “Digital Addiction” that used economic methods, such as small payments, to analyze people’s “digital self-control problems.”

The researchers recruited about 2,000 American adults who installed an Android app allowing them to limit screen time. Participants were given self-control options that were difficult to override, as well financial incentives ($2.50 for every hour that blocked Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube). Users reduced screen time for those services by 22 minutes per day over 12 weeks.

The researchers built a model showing how people’s behavior corresponded to their preferences (versus their compulsion to check their phones). The study concludes about a third of social media use (48 minutes per day on average) are linked to self-control problems and habit formation engendered by our digital technology. “The model predicts that 31% of social media use is not what people would choose for themselves in advance,” they wrote. “These results suggest that better aligning digital technologies with well-being should be an important goal of users, parents, technology workers, investors, and regulators.”

The study appeared as a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a nonpartisan non-profit.

Put down the phone

Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford psychiatry and behavioral science professor, said the white paper confirms her own observation treating patients with “compulsive overconsumption of digital products,” who show symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other negative consequences that recede when they reduce the use of these technologies. “This study attempts to validate and quantify what people like me are seeing clinically,” said Lembke who did not contribute to the study.

People tend to underestimate their own screen time, which the study’s authors chalk up to naïveté. But Lembke has another word for it. “Denial is the well-known phenomenon wherein people, including very smart people, persistently underestimate the amount they use and the impact of their drug use on their lives,” she said. “Dopamine has a way of getting away from us.”

The study supports a growing body of research that classifies reliance on mobile phones as “digital addiction.” Classic addictions exhibit two traits: consuming something today increases demand for it tomorrow, and people will choose to use less of something if they can decide in advance.  Those are hallmarks for most digital technology today. Americans check their smartphones every ten minutes on average and spend more than two hours per day on social media. Half of US teenagers classify themselves as “addicted” to their devices, and more are seeing their quality of life negatively impacted by this behavior, says psychiatrist Kimberly Young, who founded the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995.

But some researchers reject the addiction parlance. A pair of psychology researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed the effects of Facebook site redesigns on users. Frequent users posted less without showing signs of the cravings typical with an addiction, they wrote in The Washington Post.

Lembke disagrees with this for most people. “We’re more likely to effectively control our consumption of digital products if we put barriers and limits in place prior to use, and if those limits are irreversible,” says the author of a forthcoming book, Dopamine Nation. “If we wait until we’re exposed to the digital drug to decide whether or not to indulge, most of us will indulge.”