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How Much Phone Time Is Too Much Phone Time? Scientists Research Digital Addiction


The average American adult uses their phone around four to five hours every day. Stacey Vanek Smith and Darian Woods from NPR's Indicator podcast wondered, at what point does this qualify as an addiction?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: There is this question looming, right? So is there even such a thing as a digital addiction? This is a big controversy right now. And the big official book on medical disorders, the DSM-5, does not actually recognize digital addiction as a disorder.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Right. And some experts are making noise about this and calling for some more research. And that phrase, more research needed, was a green light to three behavioral economists - Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow and Lena Song. They wrote a working paper titled "Digital Addiction."

VANEK SMITH: And we spoke to co-author Lena Song. She is a Ph.D. candidate at NYU.

LENA SONG: We know social media does add tremendous value to our lives. But at the same time, there's other component of addiction that we're trying to study here. So it's not exactly all good or all bad.

VANEK SMITH: So research on digital addiction has divided it into two main concepts - habit formation and self-control. What Lena and her co-authors did was look at these two concepts through the lens of behavioral economics. So first, habit formation - so habit formation means wanting to do more of something tomorrow because you did more of it today. So, like, take coffee - if I drink two cups of coffee today, I'm going to want to drink two cups of coffee tomorrow.

WOODS: And the second concept Lena tested was self-control problems. Now, this is when you know you want to spend the weekend reading books rather than watching Netflix...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

WOODS: ...But when the weekend arrives, you think, no.

VANEK SMITH: "Grey's Anatomy" Season 7 - it's just the siren song of Shonda Rhimes.

WOODS: And it's the classic self-control problem with your virtuous, long-term planning angel on your shoulder is fighting with the short-term devil saying live for now.

SONG: I want to quit smoking. But when tomorrow comes, actually, I would continue smoking.

VANEK SMITH: And to test these two parts of addiction - habit formation and self-control problems - Lena and her colleagues recruited 2,000 volunteers using Facebook ads, of course. And they put them into groups. So some of them were given $2.50 each hour they reduced their phone usage. And the others used a limiting feature on their phones that basically restricted how much they could use each app.

SONG: We find, on average, 31% of people's phone use can be attributed to self-control problems.

VANEK SMITH: So that means if you use your phone for three hours a day, that is one hour, on average, that is being wasted on something you don't even want to do.

WOODS: And look; this isn't some righteous professor wagging their finger, saying you're using your phone too much. This is people's own preferences. And they're showing that they want to use their phones 31% less.

VANEK SMITH: Right after they start flossing and exercising every day? Yes.

WOODS: Exactly.

SONG: We also found that individuals were actually willing to pay money to use the limit function. So people are aware that they have these self-control problems. And they were willing to give a little bit of money to use these functions as well.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "VIVID SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.