Combatting Digital Addiction

Foreword

At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting-edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. As a socially conscious applied research firm, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.

Introduction

When was the last time you didn’t have your phone within reach? How many minutes does it take after you wake up to glance at your nearest screen? Technological addiction is worrisome, especially given the constraints on our lifestyles during the COVID pandemic, and the resulting dependence on digital communication that has ensued. To learn about how behavioral science might tackle this looming societal challenge, The Decision Lab reached out to Aditya Kumar Purohit, a behavioral scientist who studies digital nudges and marketing strategies. 

Aditya is a doctoral assistant in Information Systems at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He is also the founder of Nudges for Change, a platform for behavioral scientists to find nudge-related research. In his work as a behavioral change researcher, Aditya designs and tests interventions to investigate their impact on human choices and behaviors online. More specifically, he is interested in designing interventions to improve digital education, digital wellbeing, and online decision making. Previously, Aditya was an analyst at Amazon. He has supported many startups in planning and executing their digital marketing strategies by employing the principles of behavioral science. He holds an MSc in Marketing Research from Université Grenoble Alpes, France, and a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science from VTU, India.

A full version of the paper discussed in this piece is available at https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3334480.3382810

Discussion

Nathan: How would you describe the focus of your research in simple terms? 

Aditya: My research focuses on designing digital interventions to mitigate digital addiction and improve online decision making — understanding design principles that social media companies employ to make users addicted to their products and how to mitigate the dependence the users develop using digital nudges. I collaborate with startups that build tools to improve digital well-being and apply the insights of design principles to address real-world challenges. The challenges include combating problematic smartphone and social media use leading to anxiety, depression, loneliness, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Nathan: What sort of challenge did you set out to tackle? 

Aditya: The genesis of social media was to ease messaging and sharing of content between people. To yield profit from their services, social media companies rely on users’ continued attention for their revenue generation. To achieve this continued attention for profits, they design their products to be intrinsically persuasive to attract and hold people’s attention. This approach of making users hooked has consequences such as impairing psychological health and well-being and interpersonal relationships.

Nathan: How did that broad problem coalesce into a research project? 

Aditya: In this research project we followed the design science research methodology i.e., we first identified the problem, which was the persuasive design of social media platforms. Then, we situated the objectives we wanted to achieve with our solution, which was to make individuals mindful of their social media use, and finally, we presented the design of the solution and a real-world demonstrator (i.e., NUDGE) developed by our co-author Louis Barclay.

Aditya: We believe that the same design principles that create addiction could be leveraged to mitigate it. More precisely, digital nudges, in this case, design features that steer people’s decisions without banishing freedom of choice, can be used in welfare-promoting directions. In particular, we used six digital nudges to mitigate the addictive features of social media. They are as follows:

  1. Default Nudge
  2. Hiding Nudge
  3. Friction Nudge
  4. Pause-reminders
  5. Feedback Nudge
  6. Unfollow nudge

Nathan: What did you end up finding out?

Aditya: Though we used a counter-intuitive design approach to decrease social media platforms’ usability, users appreciated digital nudge interventions. They believed that digital interventions reduced their Facebook usage and, at the same time, made Facebook more enjoyable. Our results show that digital nudge interventions helped users become reflective of their social media usage, possibly decreased their time spent, and made the experience of using social media more pleasant.

Nathan: How do you think this is relevant to an applied setting (i.e. in business or public policy)? 

Aditya: Digital addiction is a significant problem. An estimated 210 million people are suffering from social media addiction worldwide. More than ever before, it is especially important now that we find ways to mitigate and balance our internet and social media use. Most designers believe that counter-intuitive designs are bad for user experience. However, our study proved that by employing digital nudges, designers can build useful, likable, and practical apps that will assist users in maintaining healthy internet/social media use and not impair their psychological health and well-being.

Nathan: Do you see future research stemming from your study? In what directions?

Aditya: We’re currently planning and setting up an experiment involving roughly 80% more participants from different geographic locations. We aim to grasp an in-depth understanding of the described nudges individually and their impact on different personality types by conducting RCTs with a combination of usage log data. By studying the user behavior from their usage log data, we will also explore the effect of timing of digital nudge interventions on users’ behaviors. 

Aditya: We welcome new collaborations. If you have a project in digital health, online decision making, or any other field with which you could use some help, don’t hesitate to reach out by emailing me at aditya.purohit@unine.ch

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