Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Cornell University researchers have developed an app that uses negative reinforcement, in the form of persistent smartphone vibrations, to remind users they’ve exceeded a predetermined time limit on social media — and help to jolt them free from the all too common social media vortex.

In his research on college students’ productivity, Cornell Tech graduate student Fabian Okeke heard many accounts of time lost to social media, beginning with a click over to Facebook or YouTube for a quick distraction.

But the distraction was not always so quick.

“You have cases where a few minutes becomes an hour, because these programs have been designed to keep pulling people back in,” said Okeke, a doctoral student in the field of information science at Cornell Tech. “So we started thinking about ways we could design different kinds of interventions that could help people focus back on work.”

Okeke and his colleagues looked to the theories of behavioral economics and psychology and tested their idea through a study focused on Facebook usage. Once study participants exceeded their pre-determined time limit on social media, their phones vibrated every five seconds until they navigated away from the targeted app. Over the duration of the study, participants reduced their time on the Facebook app by an average of 20 percent.

“The fact that something as simple as a repeated vibration could help people reduce their usage was pretty powerful,” said Okeke, lead author of “Good Vibrations: Can a Digital Nudge Reduce Digital Overload?,” presented at the 20th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services in Barcelona.

Co-author Michael Sobolev, a postdoctoral associate at Cornell Tech, said the researchers were inspired by the way cars beep until drivers and passengers put on their seatbelts.

“They tried to increase fines, but that didn’t work; the only technology that actually solved the problem is the beeping noise,” Sobolev said. “You want to give people the freedom to do what they want, but also to nudge them in the right direction. The vibration doesn’t prevent you from doing anything, but it functions as a reminder and a negative reinforcement.”

Because smartphones already have a vibration feature, the method doesn’t require any additional hardware, making it not only simple but cost-effective, the researchers said.

In the future, the researchers said they plan to look into larger-scale studies and they also hope to develop this tool as a publicly available app.

“We’re looking for ways to actually help people achieve whatever goals they set for themselves,” Okeke said. “We’re not looking to say, ‘completely stop using Facebook’; we want to give people control to exercise how much they consume digital content.”

The paper was co-authored with Nicola Dell, assistant professor of information and computer science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, and Deborah Estrin, the Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor of Computer Science and associate dean at Cornell Tech and a professor of health care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and Oath, which is part of Verizon, through the Connected Experiences Lab at Cornell Tech.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Cornell University has dedicated television and audio studios available for media interviews supporting full HD, ISDN and web-based platforms.


Journal Link: Good Vibrations: Can a Digital Nudge Reduce Digital Overload