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Understanding Personal Digital Self-Control Struggles and Appropriate Interventions

Carlsberg Foundation Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


People often struggle to stay in control over their use of smartphones and laptops. Notification-fuelled checking habits distract from more meaningful or urgent tasks, and 'addictive' design patterns like infinitely scrolling newsfeeds nudge people into spending more time on their devices than they intended. Various solutions have been suggested, such as limiting or tracking time spent. However, designing appropriate solutions is challenging, because what interventions are helpful often depends on a person's goal and emotional state. This project aims to provide a deep understanding of the contextual factors that underlie digital self-control struggles --- of how habits, goals and emotional states meet with the design of digital devices --- and how to select helpful interventions.


Researchers are testing design solutions to help people stay in control, such as blocking distractions or visualising time spent. People are often ambivalent towards these solutions: sometimes they do not capture actual usage goals (e.g., many wish to change what they do on Facebook, but not block it altogether). Other times, they are useful only when people are in certain emotional states (e.g., some blocking solutions are mostly useful when people are tired). At present, we have no clear understanding of how to accommodate more targeted, within-app goals or the influence of emotional states on self-control needs. This severely limits our ability to provide guidance to user groups such as families, students, and information workers, where digital self-control struggles are widespread.


In collaboration with the University of Oxford's Counselling Service, we will develop a tool with which users can record their goal, emotional state, and the screen content on their devices, when they experience digital self-control struggles. This tool will also allow users to inspect their data to identify triggers underlying their struggles, and experiment with potential solutions appropriate to their situation. We will develop this tool in a co-design process with students who struggle with digital distraction, and evaluate it in a longitudinal study across two Oxford terms. In doing so, the project combines (1) 'ecological momentary assessment' to capture real-time flows of mood, behaviour, and events related to digital self-control struggles, and (2) guided self-experimentation.


Digital devices such as smartphones and laptops have become essential tools to do our work, get informed or entertained, and stay in touch with friends and family. However, digital self-control struggles can lead to severe negative effects on well-being as well as economic costs, through loss of sleep, impaired social relationships, and declines in productivity. We must therefore find effective solutions to support individuals to stay in control. This project intends to generate key foundational evidence. As part of a longer-term road to impact, we plan to integrate our tool into a 'Reducing Digital Distraction' Workshop for students who struggle to manage their digital life. Together with the University of Oxford Counselling service, this workshop will be trialled alongside the project. If successful, I plan to conduct similar workshops at Danish educational institutions.