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Digital Nudges Can Be Used to Mitigate Social Media Overuse

The endless stream of social media newsfeeds and stories captivates users for hours on end, sometimes exceeding what users themselves consider healthy. However, reducing one’s social media consumption has proven to be challenging. One possible solution can be the co-creation of digital nudges to improve digital well-being without increasing privacy threats.

Social media apps are becoming the central activity on our mobile phones with a daily consumption on average of almost two hours in Denmark according to The Global WebIndex. To prevent the negative effects that can come with excessive social media usage and restore health and digital well-being, it is important to understand the principle on which social media platforms are designed. Social media platforms are often designed to maximize connections and time spent online. To achieve this goal, social media companies employ design elements such as reminding users with notifications, providing feedback with likes, and removing friction through infinite scrolling, thereby keeping users hooked.

While social media platforms are employing manipulative design elements, also known as dark patterns, to increase the time spent online, digital nudges could potentially be used to reign over one’s social media use i.e., to achieve digital well-being. Indeed, such mechanisms have been used to have positive outcomes in a variety of domains from encouraging pro-environmental behaviour to privacy awareness.

However, the person receiving a nudge can often be unaware of the nudge or psychological mechanisms that choice architects use which could threaten an individual’s autonomy. One approach to overcome this issue is to make digital nudges more transparent and effective by involving users in the nudge design process and in the decision to be nudged towards a particular goal. 

Prior research has shown that when individuals construct a product themselves, even when the product is mediocre, they experience a so-called IKEA effect. As self comes into play, individuals will feel a richer sense of agency and hold more positive perceptions about what they do. In the context of human-computer interaction, an enhanced sense of agency is observed when users have specific intentions about how they want to use a system. Based on the same effect, the concept of co-creation has been explored extensively in the context of consumer-company co-creation in which customers design products based on pre-existing design tools provided by the company. Co-creation may increase the individuals’ awareness by being the creator of their product. On the negative side, participation in co-creation activities could also increase the perceived complexity of a product and thus impede its potential benefits. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that the positive aspects will surpass the negative ones.

Experiment Co-Creating Digital Nudges
To test the effects of digital nudge co-creation, we have done an experiment in which participants co-created digital nudges for the social media platform Instagram². We used an app that allows users to program a variety of features using simple visual commands without the need to master any programming language.

Our results show among other things that co-creating the feedback nudge for digital well-being adds to the intervention effectiveness, similar to the IKEA effect. The results revealed several insights on how co-creation can be supported by digital nudges to positively encourage digital well-being. The process of co-creation and setting up the intervention themselves had significant effects on the individuals’ sense of agency, accomplishment and perceived usefulness. Building a digital well-being intervention appears to also have had the “I designed it myself” effect, comparable to the IKEA effect. Creating digital well-being interventions and becoming familiar with their mode of action as opposed to simply interacting with pre-assembled digital interventions, activates the “ownness heuristic”.

The participants of the experiment indicated that the nudge made them more mindful of their social media consumption and also significantly reduced the number of times they opened Instagram while also significantly reducing the duration of use.

However, it was also revealed that the intervention resulted in the manifestation of guilt which is a strong negative emotion. This could be due to the fact that the participants experienced the intervention to be very strong. Furthermore, the analysis also revealed that that the users are not oblivious to the dark patterns on social media platforms, instead they are knowledgeable on what keeps them hooked on Instagram like personalization of the content and infinite scrolling among many more. Future research could investigate the interplay between mindfulness and guilt and devise approaches to leverage this powerful behavioural component without potentially backfiring through negative emotions.

While phone manufacturers provide pre-built-in mechanisms for reducing digital consumption such as screen time on iOS, they mainly focus on providing real-time reports and limiting the time spent on apps by introducing limits. They could be encouraged to develop more subtle but visible feedback features such as notifying users on how many times an application has been opened, thereby accompanying users in their digital health journey. The findings in this study could lead social media designers to integrate various communication strategies that users could choose (and also edit to their liking) to decrease the feeling of guilt, for instance, “You have saved 2 minutes today” (Gain frame).

With the assistance of such applications, the creation of nudges might come in the form of haptics or visual dashboards, while being triggered by other contextual information, such as time or location. The ability to choose and adapt messages according to their preferences could further improve the experience of users who want to reduce their digital consumption without entirely leaving the platform. Developers could be encouraged to build features that allow co-creation in applications to encourage digital well-being. 

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Parts of this post were first published in: ² Purohit, A. K.; Barev, T. J.; Schöbel, S.; Janson, A. & Holzer, A. (2023): Designing for Digital Wellbeing on a Smartphone: Co-creation of Digital Nudges to Mitigate Instagram Overuse. Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). Maui, Hawaii, USA.