Digital Addiction

Innovation and Economic Growth, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet and Media and Content

Article Snapshot


Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow and Lena Song


NBER Working Paper No. 28936, 2021


A study of smartphone use shows that consumers’ excessive use of smartphones and social media may result from digital addiction. Self-control tools reduce usage and improve well-being.

Policy Relevance

Users, parents, and policymakers should support digital self-control tools.

Main Points

  • Many people spend considerable time every day on social media, and may check their smartphones 50 to 80 times each day.
    • One hypothesis is that digital technologies provide substantial consumer benefits.
    • Another is that digital addiction plays a role in digital technology consumption.
  • Key questions linked to the issue of digital addiction include:
    • Should parents limit children’s smartphone and social media time?
    • How can game companies, social media platforms, and smartphone developers contribute to consumer welfare?
    • What self-control tools should be available?
    • Would regulations such as the proposed Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART) be beneficial?
  • Self-control problems are said to occur when consumers use more of a product or service today than they would have chosen for themselves in advance.
    • The study considered 2000 American adults with Android smartphones.
    • Some were paid to reduce smartphone use, the "bonus treatment."
    • Others could limit their next day's smartphone use using a feature that could not easily be overridden, the "limit treatment."
  • The study found clear evidence of digital addiction.
    • Bonus treatment participants reduced use by 39 percent, and continued to use 19 percent less screen time after the treatment ended.
    • Limit treatment participants reduced use by 17 percent, with 89 percent of participants setting binding limits.
    • All underestimated their self-control problems and their own smartphone usage.
  • Both the bonus and limit treatments reduced behaviors typical of smartphone addiction, such as the use of a smartphone to fall asleep, using phones mindlessly, or using phones to procrastinate.
  • The bonus treatment group enjoyed improved well-being, including the ability to avoid distraction, and reduced anxiety and depression.
  • About one third of social media and smartphone use arises from self-control problems; there is unmet demand for effective digital self-control tools.

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