Digital well-being has become an important focus for many of us in the technology world. The scope of such a project is vast, of course, but for the purposes of this column, I’ll just focus on our favorite and most familiar digital device: our smartphones.
Smartphones are a Pandora’s box of applications that are designed to attract us, call to us, engage us, draw us in. The same micro-incentives that keep people hooked on the use of casino slot machines can keep us hooked on certain apps, and thus deeply attached to the device that hosts them . Smartphone attachment is so prevalent that the fear of being without a phone has a name: nomophobia  (see sidebar).
Research indicates there are different kinds of attachment to smartphones. A distinction that I found useful is between instrumental attachment and existential attachment . In the former, people are attached to what their smartphones allow them to do via access to communication platforms, productivity applications, health applications, games, and so on. A loss of access can lead to frustration, and concerns that personal and shared goals are delayed, derailed, and potentially thwarted.
The second kind of attachment is existential; it is associated with a deeper sense of identity, and with potentially anxiety-based addictive behaviors. In this scenario, the smartphone is a link to a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. It is an aggregator of emotional engagements—channeling, funneling, and multiplying them. Just as sunlight through a magnifying glass intensifies the sun’s rays, the smartphone itself can thus breed and intensify feelings of uncertainty, fuel anxieties, and lead to compulsive or obsessive behaviors. As with many addictions, the only way to reduce or relieve mounting compulsions and anxieties is to give in, in this case, to grab the smartphone and reconnect. An unhealthy attachment is born. For many, just seeing a smartphone sitting on a table can spark feelings of floating anxiety and rekindle the need to reconnect, to check in on the world, just in case…
What can be done to manage such unhealthy attachments?
There are many resources offering suggestions for behavior change. Evidence shows that our actual use of smartphones seldom aligns with our mental model or beliefs about our use. So, one strategy is to foster awareness of smartphone uses and behaviors. In a series of studies conducted by my colleague Michael Gilbert, participants recorded all the apps used over a period of weeks, then created visualizations of their app-use data, reflecting to themselves and others in a study group what apps they used most frequently, for how long, and why. People reflected on when they were acting in potentially compulsive ways. After several reflection sessions, intentional use increased, instrumental use became more focused, and habit-based, time-filler use declined. People began removing apps and started setting boundaries and expectations around their availability for communication. People also began setting location, time-on-app, and check-frequency limits.
While these are strategies that individual consumers can pursue, there are also steps we can take as technology designers. Research has shown that certain personality traits and circumstantial factors lead some people to be more susceptible to developing smartphone-related compulsive behaviors. Several factors are correlated positively with the likelihood of Internet/smartphone addiction, including the degree of need for social acceptance  (which is associated with people-pleasing behaviors), conscientiousness, and intolerance of uncertainty. Research also suggests these traits, coupled with the availability of smartphone connection, feed off each other. Sadly, it is these kinds of traits, behaviors, and psychological profiles that designers have actively leveraged to increase the potential addictiveness of apps.
My smartphone should know when I am likely to be cognitively depleted and less able to detach of my own volition.
Leaving the onus on individuals to manage their own traits, foibles, proclivities, and anxieties through acts of self-regulation is not good enough. If, as technology designers, we can make experiences compelling and potentially addictive, we can also design to avoid or reduce the triggers that underpin compulsive and addictive behaviors. We can design tools that are more attuned to a healthy brain and mind, and to healthy social engagements. Here are a few areas where better design strategies could focus:
- Design for information aggregation, summarization, and overview across apps. I’d like to pick up my phone and get an overview, not deal with the details. I’d prefer not to encounter tugs on my attention when I go to do a task. Knocking into myriad demands for attention while seeking one piece of content to respond to with intent is like running a gauntlet; it is an anxiety driver. For example, think about the last time you opened your email client to look for an email—did other items tug at you, distract you, demand your attention?
- Address the tyranny of infinite, low-quality data/information scroll. I have never been a fan of infinite scroll, as I think it draws the eye and the mind into… mindlessness, with the constant promise of something more interesting with just one more flick. It is hard for people to make the decision to stop scrolling, especially if they’re tired. And as the scrolling continues, the mind fills with more noise, more jumble, and less ability to detach.
- Improved/smarter notification and interruption management. Constant reminders to reconnect raise anxiety levels and provide the foundations for habitual, unhealthy checking rather than needs- or goal-driven checking. Addressing notifications and doing more around interruption management are critical to mental health .
- Smarter tools for determining low-criticality communications, with smarter auto-responses. I’d love for my messaging apps to generate smart responses to obvious messages. I’d like better smart-filter generation and recommendation. Much as vacation responders let others know about one’s availability and calendars auto-decline conflicting meetings, I’d like smart aggregation and suggested responses based on some contextual understanding of my current capacity and the true level of urgency of the incoming content.
- Better tools for reflection, so we can identify patterns of behavior that enable us to distinguish habit from intent, and help us work with human cognitive capacity limitations. My smartphone should know when I am likely to be cognitively depleted and less able to detach of my own volition, give me helpful nudges, and scaffold disconnection.
A number of people have talked about AI techniques as being a design material; digital well-being seems to me to be a possible area in which to invest in AI as a design material . For example, perhaps we could use on-device AI to understand personal patterns of use, create smart content aggregations, and manage notifications, including providing smarter notification-off times, using more forms of auto-initiated responses. We have email auto-completes and smart compose in email—why not smarter connection management, perhaps at a device rather than an app-by-app level? Let’s shift away from a model where an app’s hunger for our attention is accommodated, in which we, as individual users, have to manage demands on our attention, app by app. What about a smartphone that represents us, puts smart barriers up, and protects our needs as users, rather than accommodating the needs of the apps?
Digital well-being is something we need to work on collectively, not individually. It requires a mind-shift in how we think about what an appropriate technology environment is, and what a good engagement model is—and what are not good environment and engagement models. Critically, as with many HCI issues, this is not about technological fixes alone. There are known conflicts between current business drivers (e.g., maximize time on device/site, maximize clicks), user needs (e.g., maximize utility, minimize interruption), and ethical cultural/social needs (e.g., try to do the right thing). One of the key questions for us all is to address if and how these incentives could come into alignment.
Thank you to Michael Gilbert for his helpful comments on this column.
1. Estimate from WorldOMeters; https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
2. Estimate from DataRePortal; https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2019-global-digital-overview
4. The term, an abbreviation for “no-mobile-phone phobia,” was coined during a 2010 study by the U.K. Post Office, who commissioned YouGov, a U.K.-based research organization, to look at anxieties suffered by mobile phone users.
5. This distinction was originally made in this paper: Cao, X. and Sun, J. Exploring the effect of overload on the discontinuous intention of social media users: An S-O-R perspective. Computers in Human Behavior 81 (Apr. 2018), 10–18; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217306738
6. See for example DeWall, C.N. and Bushman, B.J. Social acceptance and rejection: The sweet and the bitter. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20, 4 (2011), 256–260; https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411417545
7. There is some excellent discussion in this Daghstul Report from 2017: Dagstuhl Seminar 17161 - Ambient Notification Environments; https://www.dagstuhl.de/en/program/calendar/semhp/?semnr=17161
8. See Lars Erik Holmquist’s article in Interactions: https://interactions.acm.org/archive/view/july-august-2017/intelligence-on-tap
Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for the past 18 years. Her research interests include social media, distributed collaboration, mediated communication, and ubiquitous and embedded computing applications. email@example.com
Are you a nomophobe? Here are some of the symptoms:
- Without your phone you are restless, irritable, and have difficulty concentrating.
- You crave access to your smartphone.
- You are deeply worried that something is going on that you need to track. You are desperately afraid of missing out on something (known as “fear of missing out” or FOMO) to the point of extreme agitation and catastrophic thinking.
- You feel generalized social interaction anxiety.
- You’re not worried about a specific email or task. You are generally anxious about whether there is something you need to know and fear you don’t know.
Ask yourself some of the questions below; counselors and researchers use them to determine a person’s level of attachment:
- Do you check your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night? Are your sleep patterns disrupted because of late-night phone checking?
- Do you check your smartphone 35 times a day or more? Are these checks not linked to any specific needs? Are they habitual? Are you engaging with compulsive checking?
- Do you feel lost and frustrated without your smartphone?
- Do you use your smartphone even when talking to or eating with others?
- Do you use prefer to use your smartphone rather than spend time with others?
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