“Excessive Use of Technology: Can Tech Providers be the Culprits?”
Communications of the ACM, January 2021, Vol. 64 No. 1, Pages 42-44
By Ofir Turel, Christopher Ferguson
“Almost certainly, tech companies attempt to develop ways in which participants remain engaged, although the degree to which such mechanisms are harmful remain hotly contested.”
The influx of hedonic online services (including video streaming, social media, video games) has created rather fierce competition for people’s attention, in what is termed the “attention economy—in which every minute of attention and engagement tech companies can “squeeze” out of users counts. To compete in this environment, tech companies, intentionally or unintentionally, have adapted practices that have capitalized on varying features of human decision making and brain physiology to cultivate automatic, and uninterrupted use.
There is a body of evidence—growing yet debated—suggesting that when some technologies are used excessively, the use can interfere with normal functioning, such as with sleep, physical activity, and school performance. What’s more, populations such as children and adolescents may be susceptible to excessive use, although age related prevalence issues have not always been made clear. We say the evidence is debated because some studies suggest that excessive use may be related to prior mental illness rather than to the technology itself. Consequently, some scholarly groups have criticized the concept of “technology addiction.” Therefore, we use here the term “excessive use,” which reflects use patterns that are excessive in that they infringe on normal functioning of users.
The role of tech companies (mostly hedonic online service providers and app developers) in excessive use is an issue that merits further discussion and research. This issue is very timely, given the tendency to blame tech providers for many ills in our society (for example, violence and radicalization on social media and/or the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in job displacement and reduced human agency). Focusing on excessive use, as is, it is often assumed that it is the sole responsibility of users; they should have controlled their use. This is akin to a speeding driver, in which case if caught, most people will agree that it is purely his or her fault, and not the car manufacturer’s fault for affording speeding. This simplistic one-sided view, however, has been losing ground in recent years. For example, the use of loot boxes in video games has been equated with gambling, which prompted debate about the need to regulate such tools. Similarly, a recent U.S. senate bill proposes social media providers should also take some responsibility for excessive use, and remove psychological mechanisms that reduce people’s self-control over their use.
In this Viewpoint, we seek to make first strides toward discussing the responsibility of tech providers for excessive use. Initiating this discussion is important, because it can serve as a basis for more informed use practices and interventions.
About the Authors:
Ofir Turel is a Professor of Information Systems at California State University Fullerton, CA, USA.
Christopher Ferguson is a Professor of Psychology at Stetson University in Deland, FL.