Digital Diets May Cause Damage

01/08/2016 11:09 | Updated 31 July 2017

A Digital Diet aims to reduce usage and increase control over digital media. This is important for people with obsessive and excessive use of digital media who can exhibit symptoms of behavioural addiction such as mood modification, salience, withdrawal symptoms and tolerance to increased usage.

There are notable extreme cases where digital addiction, to games in particular, were associated with serious consequences such as neglecting children and personal health and hygiene conditions. This could be argued to justify the need for digital addiction labels and interactive warning messages.

Dependency and attachment to digital technology can also be linked to problematic work style, where people never disconnect from their jobs even during their holiday time. It can be argued that the way online communication systems are designed does not help reducing that preoccupation but indeed often facilitates it.

Technology addiction could be also in a cyber-physical form; the case of obsessive usage of Pokémon Go being a recent topical example.

What is Digital Diet technology?
There currently exist various software applications which can be installed on computers and smart phones to help people to calculate and regulate their digital usage. Examples of the techniques used include tracking the amount of usage and visualizing it to users, enabling them to set up limits of usage, comparing their usage to an average user, allowing them to form an online peer support group where they monitor each other usage and put peer pressure towards adhering to an agreed usage style, and so on.

Why is it questionable?
Despite the increasing popularity of such Digital Diet applications, and other software-based behavioural change solutions, there does not seem to be any clear scientific background or evidence in relation to their effectiveness and sustainability of effect.

In our ESOTICS research group at Bournemouth University and as part of our Digital Addiction research, we conducted an empirical research using diary study method followed by interviews and recruited participants who declared a degree of problematic usage in relation to their mobile phones. They agreed to install and use popular commercial Digital Diet apps for two weeks.

Risk 1: Misunderstanding and Misjudgement
One of the problems identified related to the way these apps monitor and evaluate people's usage. They track the time a user spends on each app and the frequency of checking smart phones and the like. Indeed, digital addiction is not only, and not necessarily, about the time spent and frequency of use. We can imagine social networking users who post a comment and keep thinking of the replies they could be getting even when they should be sleeping. It is not the amount of usage time that matters here but the preoccupation and the dependency caused.

Risk 2: Lowering Self-esteem
The apps may create a feeling of low self-efficacy and self-esteem. This could happen when a user always receives a message or a score indicating that other peers are managing to regulate their usage better. A Digital Diet app adopting peer comparisons should be informed by the side effects of such social comparison. As a solution, it may enforce a more intelligent group membership protocol where perhaps users of a similar usage style can join and compare their progress in regulating usage with each other.

Risk 3: Creating parallel addiction
Indeed, ironically such technology can become addictive itself. Some of the participants indicated that they became more inclined to check their mobile phone to know how they compare to others and how much time they had spent so far which may cause further anxiety. Furthermore, while doing so, they unconsciously started to check other apps and spend additional time on their phones. One commented that such technology is like "inviting someone to a pub to talk about their alcohol addiction".

Risk 4: Unsustainable effect
The participants liked the way the technology allowed them to have something similar in a way to a scale to watch their "digital weight" but also noted a number of issues. Some felt that the apps were too much of a one-size-fits-all and their personal preferences and stage and type of digital addiction were not considered sufficiently. For example, the messages sent, the avatars used and the comparisons made do not tend to cluster users and recognize their personality, usage style and perception of their own usage. This led to a limited effect on their behaviour and, eventually, a lack of interest in the digital diet.