What It Is
Digital Self-Control Apps are tools - usually browser extensions or mobile apps - that individuals voluntarily adopt to help them reduce time spent on social media and other platforms they consider distractions. These apps use a variety of strategies to help users reduce time on distracting platforms, including setting time limits, reminding users of their goals, self-tracking and doling out rewards or punishments.
Civic Signal Being Amplified
When To Use It
In general these are apps that browsers or mobile operating systems would offer as a tool to help users have a more fulfilling online experience. We assume for the most part that social media platforms that aim to maximize engagement would not offer these tools; however, platforms that want to offer a more healthful experience might also adopt these tools so users can, for example, "scroll responsibly". (See, e.g. Instagram’s time limit feature.)
What Is Its Intended Impact
While these apps vary in the mechanisms they use, they all aim to reduce time spent on platforms that users specify are distracting.
Evidence That It Works
Evidence That It Works
Roffarello and Russis (2023) conducted a meta-analysis of seven field experiments which each tested whether Digital Self-Control apps were effective in reducing time spent on distracting platforms as identified by users. (Note: a meta-analysis uses statistical techniques to combine the data from multiple studies and estimate an overall effect as if they were one study.) The authors found a statistically significant effect, showing the apps overall reduced time spent by about 0.5 standard deviations, which social scientists generally consider a "moderate effect".
While this is a fairly strong finding, there are reasons why we can't be confident that it means all - or even many - Digital Self-Control Apps are effective. One reason that the authors mention is that most of the studies only looked at short term effects (~ 21 days); it is possible that any effect would wear off over time as users lose their initial motivation. Another concern is that most of the studies use a "within-subjects" design (i.e. the study flips the apps on and off for each user) which can distort the apps’ effectiveness. Most importantly, the seven studies included in the meta-analysis test apps that take different approaches and likely are of varying quality; which is to say it would be hard to conclude that any given Digital Self-Control App is effective.
One additional study we looked at, Kovacs et al, 2019 (which was not included in the meta-analysis above), had similar findings and limitations; it also used a within-subjects design and didn't account for what may happen when users lose their initial motivation. It likewise examined multiple types of interventions, making it difficult to know which approaches are effective.
Overall, we see promise in Digital Self-Control Apps, but before there are more studies that test individual approaches, ideally using between-subjects design over longer periods, it is hard to confidently say these apps are generally effective.
Why It Matters
Platforms are becoming increasingly proficient in their ability to capture and keep users' attention, which can have an adverse effect on individuals' sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. Digital Self-Control Apps give individuals who are aware of the potential detrimental effects of social media and other engagement platforms a promising way to exercise agency and improve their wellbeing.
Achieving Digital Wellbeing Through Digital Self-control Tools: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
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