Are we addicted to social media apps on our smartphones?
Yes, many of us are.
Two concepts are central to most definitions of addiction: habit formation and self-control problems. Habit formation means that using now makes people want to use more in the future. Self-control problems means that people use more now than they ideally would like to use. They have been measured in context such as smoking and alcohol use. A new study with a large experiment measuring “digital addiction” shows that they similarly play a substantial role in how people use social media.
Participants randomly assigned to receive financial incentives to reduce their social media use continued to use less than their counterparts even after the incentive period was over. This persistence is evidence of habit formation.
Participants randomly assigned to receive a commitment device (in the form of an app functionality that allows people to set limits on their apps) reduced their social media use. They were also willing to pay to keep the functionality. These facts are evidence of self-control problems. In the presence of habit formation, an economic model suggests that self-control problems account for nearly a third of participants’ social media use on their smartphones.
What can we do? Offering self-control tools, encouraging people to adopt them, and designing features with “harder” limits that people cannot immediately override are some ways to get people closer to their ideal use.