It’s not exactly breaking news that digital addiction is a growing problem around the world. As more research is being pushed into the mainstream media, public awareness of digital addiction is also growing. Studies are revealing that we check our phones first thing in the morning, an average of every 12 minutes throughout the day, and before our head finally hits the pillow at night1.
Contributing to the shift in public opinion are tech insiders from some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, who have spoken out against the very habit-forming products they helped develop. Some of these prominent voices are featured in the 2020 Netflix film The Social Dilemma, a documentary that reveals the most critical issues that surround humankinds’ relationship with technology.
The outpouring of research and whistleblowing seems to be leading to some semblance of a demand for change. In response, various interventions have been implemented by companies in an attempt to address problems like digital addiction. For example, Screen Time is a software program installed on Apple devices that allows customers to gain better control and awareness of their device usage2; a strategy not without its criticisms3.
However, despite the influx of information that exposes digital addiction, and the strategies implemented by companies to help mitigate the issue, it is unlikely that our tech-checking habits will subside. A study by psychologists Bas Verplanken and Wendy Wood4 suggests that interventions – such as research, documentaries, and programs like Screen Time – are great for raising awareness and changing minds, but do not necessarily change users’ habits.
The authors write that informational campaigns (like The Social Dilemma documentary) and self-help strategies (like Apple’s Screen Time) are classified as “downstream interventions”, which work best when behaviour is vulnerable to change. These kinds of interventions are targeted at people with problematic habits and rely on the individual to make decisions in order to solve the problem. In the case of digital addiction, it is evident that downstream interventions have been successful in changing public opinion, but it is not as clear that people’s digital habits have subsided.
“Upstream interventions” are presented as more proactive solutions that focus on larger structural conditions in which people’s behaviours are embedded. These interventions can consist of economic incentives, legislation, or structural changes that might aim to change behaviour before they occur.
For example, legislation introduced by U.S senator Josh Hawley would ban addictive features on social media like infinite scroll and auto-play5. If Senator Hawley’s legislation were to be implemented around the world, this could have a significant impact preventing the spread of digital addiction and potentially alleviate existing addiction.
The third kind of intervention proposed in Verplanken and Wood’s research is “downstream-plus-context-change” which, as the name suggests, implements a downstream intervention during a change in context. This type of intervention works especially well when such changes apply to groups of people and can be more effective in disrupting users’ existing habits.
In many countries, the waves of COVID-19 have forced many people into quarantine, and compromised conditions for students and people in the workforce. As mentioned, changes in environment open people’s vulnerability to new information and creates an opportunity for downstream-plus-context-change interventions to be applied.
Sober October is an initiative used by several organisations that encourages people to raise funds and awareness by giving up alcohol during October. A similar concept could be used to expand Apple’s Screen Time by launching a campaign to minimise device usage during periods of quarantine. Apple could message their customers directly to encourage them to sign up and “join the challenge!”.
The expanded application could record device use during a set period of time and reward users who achieve their goals of digital soberness. The collective mindset for the challenge can bring people in similar circumstances together and even create friendly competition. During naturally occurring periods of change, this downstream-plus-context-change intervention could alter the habits of users and diminish digital addiction.
It is within the capabilities of technology companies to detect digital addiction and other psychological problems users may be experiencing with their devices6. Unfortunately, commercial interests supersede user wellbeing. Therefore, it is up to external organisations and individual users to create, partake and implement digital awareness initiatives to combat digital addiction.
- Verplanken, B. & Wood, W., 2006. Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), pp.90–103.