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It isn’t hard to find apparent evidence of addiction to digital technology. British adults check their smartphone devices every 12 minutes when awake, according to UK media regulator Ofcom’s 2019 Online nation report.
Meanwhile, interviews with 2,200 five to 16 year olds by British market researcher Childwise found that 44% feel uncomfortable if they are without a phone signal and 57% always have their phones beside their beds.
Technologists such as Tristan Harris, who used to work as a design ethicist for Google, argue that smartphones and other digital services are addictive, shortening attention spans and polarising society.
His San Francisco-based not-for-profit Centre for Humane Technology advises users to switch off notifications that are not from people, turn smartphone screens grey, and charge devices outside bedrooms.
However, experts on addiction are cautious over identifying “digital addiction”.
“It is a term that makes some psychologists wince slightly,” says John McAlaney, associate professor in psychology at Bournemouth University. “Some question whether it’s addiction as we would recognise it.”
In research, McAlaney and his colleagues have found that some people are willing to agree they are digital addicts, then get offended when asked if this is equivalent to being hooked on crack cocaine.
McAlaney points out that many digital technologies connect people to each other: “Socialisation is a very fundamental human thing to do. It makes it difficult to say this is an addiction or even necessarily harmful.”
Ben Carter, a senior lecturer on biostatistics and epidemiology at King’s College London, adds that it makes more sense to look at indicators of addiction such as loss of control and withdrawal effects. He sees interactivity as a key factor, comparing passive cinema screens to today’s smartphone touchscreens.
Both see gambling as providing an example of how digital technologies can affect an existing source of addiction. “If you are susceptible to gambling addiction, we now have a device that gives us 24/7 access to it,” says Carter, when compared with having to visit a bookmakers. “That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”
Great Britain’s 395,000 problem gamblers (according to the Gambling Commission) are not necessarily digital addicts, but smartphones can exacerbate their gambling addiction.
If digital technologies remove barriers to addiction, one answer is to impose new barriers. In a report published in June, the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gambling Related Harm recommended slowing the speed and limiting stakes for gambling based on random number-generated results such as roulette and virtual slot-machines. It also argued for an independent review of how online gambling is regulated with products classified by addictiveness.
McAlaney uses an analogy to another addictive substance as a possible model: “If you’re a bartender, you want people to be drinking because it makes the bar money and they are having fun and enjoying themselves. But you don’t want them to get to the point where they are so drunk that they become a problem and start smashing things.”
Bar staff are trained on when to stop serving someone because they are drinking too much. “You could see something similar for organisations and software developers, knowing how to detect when something is becoming problematic, getting too extreme,” says McAlaney.
So how can business software providers act like responsible bartenders? Those worried about problem gambling are advised to set time limits, and software could monitor users to enforce something similar, but this has an obvious drawback.
“To do that, you have got to be monitoring what workers are doing,” says Sal Laher, chief digital and information officer of Swedish-based industrial software specialist IFS. “We think that’s a dangerous path to go down.”
Instead of monitoring individual use, the company tracks how long it takes for its two million users to complete popular processes, then looks for ways to shorten these such as through automation.
Laher agrees that some technology is designed to be addictive. “A lot of people write software, design processes or digital automation to consume the consumer completely,” he says, as building a detailed profile of consumers makes it possible to capture more of their spending.
But, he adds, that software for employees has a different aim: “It’s about making the person utilising our software that much more productive, more innovative, more informative, more able to do their work seamlessly.” There are good reasons for consumer technologies to soak up users’ time, but business software has good reasons to do the opposite.
McAlaney says there are softer alternatives to locking people out of software, such as a “social norms intervention” where users are told how their working time compares to the average, helping those who spend longer to realise they are outliers. Employers can also manage expectations, making it clear that 11-hour days are not the way to get a promotion.
Another option already in use is to set organisational time limits, with French companies employing more than 50 people being required to negotiate with staff over the responsibility to check emails outside working hours, and German vehicle makers Volkswagen and Daimler having introduced similar measures.
Carter says there are various ways general time limits could be introduced, such as pausing the delivery of emails outside work hours or having senior staff state that they do not expect a response to their emails after hours.
Ben Carter, King’s College London
“That kind of leadership at boardroom level would be helpful,” Carter says of the latter, as otherwise people will feel pressured to reply to an end-of-day message that evening. “What want staff to be is really efficient when working, but not when they’re not working.”
Mark Robinson, co-founder of London-based professional services automation software provider Kimble, finds it less stressful to catch up with emails on Sundays, but his business partner has advised him to set these to send on Monday to avoid stressing colleagues. Over this year’s Easter holiday, all senior managers agreed to set emails to arrive on Tuesday morning.
However, Robinson believes a small measure of addictiveness is no bad thing. “There’s a mentally of, ‘It’s business software, people have got to use it’,” he says, but staff faced with badly designed applications will look for unofficial alternatives that let them work more productively.
This is demonstrated by how difficult many organisations find it to stop people using Microsoft Excel, which is very easy to use for a wide range of tasks even when a supposedly better option is in place. Staff faced with hard-to-use applications may also use them badly or partially, reducing their worth.
Kimble uses consumer-style nudging in its software, including colour-coded symbols such as red calendar notifications indicating an urgent deadline. Robinson says this serves as advice which can help less-experienced users, rather than pushing anyone to do something.
“Any application is only as good as the behaviours it drives,” he says, and if it pushes people into working very long hours or get stressed, it is not good software. “Instead of having to find information, software should present it to users so they can interpret that data, do the things that humans are good at and enjoy, rather than drudgery,” he says.
Another consumer software technique used by some business software providers is gamification, adding game-like features to work processes. “You may increase wellbeing by making the job fun,” says Raian Ali, a professor at the college of science and engineering at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, but gamification can also damage people’s mental health. “We shouldn’t treat it like software. It’s a behavioural intervention assisted by technology.”
Leaderboards and gamification
Leaderboards, where employees are ranked by performance on a given measure, can cause a range of problems. Some staff will feel uncomfortable being constantly monitored and introverts may dislike being ranked publicly regardless of their performance, although these can be tackled by making the systems opt-in.
Leaderboards can also suffer from Goodhart’s law, named after British economist Charles Goodhart, where turning a measure into a target stops it being a good measure.
Ali gives the example of ranking contact centre staff by how many calls they complete: “It means you will give a quick fix to a customer to satisfy the algorithm rather than do your job generally,” he says. “Technology is not very good at measuring intentions, just actions.”
But gamification can contribute if used intelligently, he adds. While it should not be used as the main way in which someone is evaluated, it is good at nudging people into changing their behaviour.
One option is to allow staff to rate each other on how helpful they are, which as well as being positive and uncompetitive can also provide people with useful feedback. Whatever measure is chosen should be inclusive, something open to new joiners as well as experienced members of staff. “It must remain as fun,” Ali sums up.
Toronto-based employee engagement platform Achievers works along these lines, with staff at organisations using its service getting points from colleagues which can be used to ‘buy’ items from a wish-list, as well as features including the ability to sign and receive digital celebration cards.
Chief product officer Michael Cohen adds that providing ways to support employees is particularly important when many people are working from home as a result of coronavirus. Achievers has a workforce institute division that publishes advice in this area, and more personally Cohen has been strapping his four-month-old son to his chest for video calls to show that the company recognises that staff have family responsibilities.
As with other software suppliers, Cohen draws a distinction between consumer software and systems bought by employers for their employees to use. “It’s not about getting more likes on your post or your hashtag trending,” he says. “It’s about wanting you to feel connected and belonging at work.”