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New study finds that smartphones really are addictive. But skeptics remain cautious

Until tech companies provide better tools for managing your screen time, you’re on your own.

New study finds that smartphones really are addictive. But skeptics remain cautious
[Images: Ayaneshu Bhardwaj/Unsplash, Liubov Khutter-Kukkonin/iStock]
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Life is about balance. Too much sugar and you get a stomach ache. Too much alcohol and you get a whopping hangover (or worse). Too much time on your phone and all of a sudden the day has turned to night because you accidentally watched four hours of pet videos.

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Are we addicted to our phones? And are they bad for us? These are questions that many people have asked, but the answers aren’t simple or consistent. Some studies say screen time is bad for your mental health and sleep patterns. Other research says cellphones are good because using them stimulates the brain. Until now, it’s been hard to draw concrete conclusions.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conducted the first formal study focused on digital addiction. It explored people’s ability to maintain and reduce screen time usage to determine whether technology is indeed habit-forming. The research is part of the NBER Working Paper Series, meaning it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and was conducted by Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow, and Lena Song, who come from Microsoft, Stanford University, and New York University, respectively.

People have long speculated that the internet is addictive, and this study seems to confirm those fears. “Our data is consistent with social media having characteristics of addictive goods. [Social media sites are] habit-forming and we find ourselves using them more than we’d like to,” Allcott said. “That suggests that we would be better off if there was a better way to control our use.”

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Participants in the study often underestimated the amount of time they expected to spend scrolling through their phones: 31% of the time spent on their phones, participants said, was time they would have rather used for something else. The researchers noted that means people lack self-control with screen time. On average, each person spends around 2.5 hours per day on their phone and checks it 50 to 80 times. Participants were able to reduce their screen time with the help of apps that reminded them to do so.

“More broadly, 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 noted.

Craig J.R. Sewall, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and researcher, reviewed the NBER study and was impressed with its large size (1,938 participants), as well as the fact that it tracked people’s usage, thus avoiding any self-reporting errors.

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However, he was skeptical of how the researchers defined addiction. “The study did not find that reducing tech use led to significant increases in happiness or life satisfaction, or significant decreases in anxiety and depression,” Sewall said. “If tech use really was an addiction, as defined by the APA [American Psychological Association], you would expect the intervention to lead to significant changes in psychological well-being (e.g., happiness, life satisfaction, anxiety, and depression).” According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, addiction is “a state of psychological or physical dependence” that negatively impacts the health and life of the user.

Looking ahead, Allcott predicts that the most effective way to limit screen time will be for smartphone makers and social media platforms to implement more functional self-control limits. “You need to have a way of giving people a more forceful commitment while also allowing them an escape valve that gives them the flexibility they need,” Allcott said. “Our data suggests that users would benefit if companies would take the next step and program in the ability for users to set more forceful limits for themselves.”

Until then, there are a number of ways users can manage screen time on their own.