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Reducing Digital Overload

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While time spent online can be managed simply by exercising discipline, digital interventions also can help.

Credit: MirageC/Getty Images

Aarathi Prasad has been trying to limit her screen time. She is aware of growing concerns that spending too much time on devices such as smartphones and laptops is problematic; that it often isn't time well-spent, or that people feel burdened by the need to be constantly available. Furthermore, it could pose health risks by causing sleep disturbances or injuries to the hand and neck, and even potentially increasing the risk of heart disease.

Yet Prasad, an assistant professor of computer science at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, found that trying to curb her screen use has taken its toll, too. "I feel like it causes more stress," she says. "It's like trying to lose weight."

Many people now spend much of their days in front of screens, which the pandemic has made even more necessary. While time spent online can be managed simply by exercising discipline, digital interventions also can help. Apps such as Moment, or systems built into a smartphone's operating system such as Apple's ScreenTime, can track how long you spend on different apps and enable you to set time limits. Notifications or warnings are typically sent when your allotted time is coming to an end.

These tools, however, may not work for everyone. In recent work, Prasad and a colleague focused on the ScreenTime feature available on iPhones to gauge how widely it was used and the impact it had on a user's emotions. They targeted undergraduate students, and had 230 complete a survey online that included questions about a person's use of ScreenTime, such as the time limits they set for social media, entertainment, and games. The survey also asked people to select the emotions they experienced at different stages of using the tool, such as when they got a warning that they had exceeded a set time limit. There was also the option to expand on what they felt in writing.

The team found study participants that used ScreenTime were most concerned about limiting social media use, where the average time limit set was 4.5 hours. Using the system generated mixed emotions among participants, which often varied based on how they perceived their smartphone use. People that were not concerned about too much screen time didn't feel bad if they went over the limit, while those that considered their device use problematic often reported negative emotions. "Some participants felt guilt and shame because they felt they were doing something wrong when they got an alert (for exceeding their time limit)," says Prasad.

Although it was a preliminary study, Prasad thinks the results show clearly that a time-based approach is not ideal for everyone. She thinks that focusing on what a person wants to achieve from using their phone could be a more acceptable alternative approach. Research has shown that people often regret using their phones without a purpose, such as scrolling a social media feed for hours when they could have been doing something more productive.

Prasad and her team are developing an app based on mindfulness, the quality of being aware of what you're doing in the moment and being okay with it, which could help people use their phones with intention. The researchers also want to incorporate rewards into their system to help people develop healthier smartphone usage habits. "You need to motivate people to keep up a (new) habit, because it takes a certain amount of time to actually change their behavior," says Prasad.

Another group also has been designing an app to help curb digital overuse that focuses on warning signals. Michael Sobolev, a lecturer at Cornell Tech in New York City, and his colleagues were inspired by the beeping sound you hear in a car when you don't put your seatbelt on. Studies have shown this type of reminder is an effective way to get people to wear a seatbelt, with about 80% of people usually buckling up as a result. "What's interesting about that is that (it helps) you build a habit," says Sobolev, "so because you were exposed to the annoying noise when you didn't wear a seatbelt, you (eventually) don't wait for the noise and you do it automatically."

The Cornell Tech team applied a similar principle to limiting smartphone use in an app they designed. A user can select apps they want to use less, and choose daily time limits for each; then, if they are using such an app and they surpass the allotted time, their phone will vibrate gently every five seconds until they stop using it. "We wanted to help (users) self-regulate their own behavior," says Sobolev. "Because it's a subtle vibration, it feels like a nudge and not a slap on the wrist."

In a preliminary study, Sobolev et al.  also evaluated their system to see how effective it was at curbing the amount of time people spent on a mobile app. They chose to focus on Facebook usage, since prior research has shown that most people concerned about limiting their time online want to reduce time spent on Facebook.

They conducted an experiment with 50 participants divided into three groups. Over a one-week period, people in the first group could open Facebook twice a day for five minutes each time, and their phones would vibrate if they went over that limit. In the second group, people had personalized time limits amounting to just half of their typical usage and number of opens before being nudged with a vibration. The third group was a control with no set limits, but users could see a status bar notification that reflected their Facebook usage.

Sobolev and his team found their intervention was successful at reducing time spent on Facebook, with little difference between the fixed time limits and personalized strategies. However, during a one-week follow-up period after the interventions were stopped, the decreases in usage did not persist. Sobolev thinks that is partly because of the short time frame of the study.

Like Prasad, Sobolev also is interested in exploring interventions that are not time-based. In follow-up work, he and his colleagues compared the effectiveness of setting time limits versus changing a phone's background to grayscale mode, a more passive tactic to indicate usage time was up. The researchers found the strategy did help curb screen time, and was slightly more effective than setting time limits. "It could be that changing to grayscale mode leads people to enjoy social media less, and therefore just reduce their phone use in general," says Sobolev.

In future work, Sobolev would like to investigate interventions that could work for children. Studies suggest excessive screen time may be particularly detrimental to youngsters, as it can hinder the development of social skills and use time that could be spent on healthy activities such as exercise. However, there is not yet a consensus on which strategies may be most effective in helping limit children's screen time.

Prasad is also interested in whether interventions such as her team's mindfulness approach could be adapted for children. Parents often restrict their children's screen use by setting a daily time limit, without considering their reasons for using a device. "Maybe their child actually wants to spend two hours watching a series that teaches them about sharing, which is good," says Prasad. "I think a mindfulness approach would start parents thinking about what their child wants, and help them come up with rules."

 Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer based in London, U.K.


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