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Hooked on your smartphone?

Social media and smartphone use rank above watching television, smoking and boozing in the top five things people think they ought to be doing less of.

Drugs, gambling, cigarettes. And now we have a new and modern-day vice — digital addiction — to worry about.

Research by Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his colleagues sheds new light on people’s digital tendencies. They estimate that self-control problems are responsible for 31 percent of the time that people in their study spend on social media.

The research, detailed in a new working paper, is akin to the first steps in coping with addiction — acknowledging and understanding the problem.

“There has been a lot of talk about the idea that social media and smartphones might be addictive. But clear evidence for that has been limited. The results of our study show clearly that digital addiction is real,” says Gentzkow, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

“Just like other addictive things, there’s a tendency for people to build up a habit," he says. "The more you use it, the more you want to use it.”

Social media and smartphone usage rank above watching television, smoking and boozing in the top five things people think they ought to be doing less of, according to a survey that was part of the study.

Then, in developing the first economic model of digital addiction and applying real-world data taken from a randomized field experiment, the researchers gleaned behavioral evidence that reflected two key components of addiction: habit formation and self-control problems. The insights included:

  • People consistently underestimate their future social media use, even when they are reminded of their past usage amounts.
  • If people are given small financial incentives to cut back on social media for a few weeks, the habit of reduced usage persists even after the incentives go away.
  •  Social media use goes down substantially — by about 22 minutes a day — after people are offered the use of an app that allows them to set screen time limits on their smartphones.
  • Both the financial incentives and the screen time limits helped temper smartphone addiction, narrowing the gap between people’s stated ideal and actual screen time.\
  • The incentives and screen time limits seemed to benefit experiment participants. For instance, they reported being less likely to lose sleep and to use their phones to distract from anxiety or to procrastinate.

“A lot of people say, ‘I'm on social media too much and I feel addicted,’” says Hunt Allcott, an economist at Microsoft Research and a co-author of the study along with Gentzkow and Lena Song, a PhD candidate at NYU. “This paper is really about quantifying that idea. Our model finds that self-control problems account for almost a third of people’s social media use.”

The study, released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggests that designing technological solutions to help people curb their digital addiction and align their screen time usage to levels they’d be happy with “should be an important goal of users, parents, technology workers, investors, and regulators.”

An economist view of smartphone addiction

“Smartphones are probably the most important new innovation since television in terms of how it transforms the way people use their time,” says Gentzkow, a professor of economics in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

The study cites other surveys that found people around the world now spend more time consuming online media than they do watching television, and the average person with internet access spends 2.5 hours each day on social media. Americans check their smartphones anywhere from 50 to 80 times each day.

This latest research by Gentzkow and Allcott adds to their work examining the impacts of media, including its evolving role in political polarizationelections, and the spread of fake news, as well as its effects on individual well-being and the COVID-19 culture war.

Applying the tools of behavioral economics, the researchers set out to create a model that defines digital addiction and provides a way to measure its effect on smartphone usage. Two main forces make up the addiction equation: One is known as habit formation, which means, in economics, that consuming something today increases demand tomorrow. The second component is self-control, which pertains to how people consume more today than they would have previously chosen for themselves.

But smartphone usage isn’t all bad.

“Although this particular research tries to zero in on these addictive aspects, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there are actually a lot of good things and benefits that these technologies create,” Gentzkow says.

Hope for the hooked

Researchers say they found clear evidence that people have self-control problems with their smartphone usage and are at least partly aware of them.

The field experiment, conducted between March 22 and July 26, 2020, involved about 2,000 adult Android phone users who agreed to install an app that was specifically developed for the study to record smartphone screen time and allowed them to set limits on their own usage. Researchers focused on six apps that participants reported to be especially tempting: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, web browsers and YouTube.

The participants took a series of surveys throughout and were randomly assigned to two treatment groups. One group was given options for temporary financial incentives to cut back on their online media use, and the second group was given additional control features to set personalized time limits on those apps if they wanted to do so. (Tools like this are already available for smartphones, but they often allow users to override, or snooze; this experiment’s app could not be easily overridden and enforced the limits.)

About 40 percent of the participants said they were already happy with their amount of screen time, while the remaining majority said they wanted to dial back their digital dosage. The baseline amount of screen time for the average participant was nearly six hours per day, of which 46 percent was spent on the six most tempting apps.

The experiment took place during the beginning of COVID-19 shutdowns, and while the pandemic did increase the participants’ overall hours of screen time, the researchers say it did not appear to have a clear effect on the magnitude of self-control problems.

The good news, the researchers say, is that the interventions for both treatment groups seemed to work for those who needed them the most.

“And the people who said they felt the most addicted at the start showed the most improvement in terms of reducing their addiction,” Allcott says.