In 2012, the Pew Research Center surveyed a large number of internet pundits on their predictions around the impact of digital technologies on young adults in 2020. Numerous respondents expected the key challenges to revolve around attention and self-control, with a new social divide likely to emerge in an addictive digital world: whereas large benefits would accrue to those able to adapt, safeguard their attention, and use technology positively to advance their goals, those without clear goals or desire to achieve something would get trapped in a downward spiral of distraction and fall further and further behind (Pew Research Center 2012; cf. Postman 1985).
Whereas such bleak scenarios may be exaggerated (Orben 2019), the evidence summarised in Chapter 2 does suggest that the functionality and convenience provided by smartphones and computers, combined with the design imperatives of the attention economy, cause many, if not most, users to struggle routinely with exercising self-control over their digital device use. This should not be surprising, as self-control researchers have long found that relying on conscious willpower is a poor strategy when temptations are permanently available. Therefore, as an ever-expanding range of activities becomes digitally mediated, devising effective design patterns to support user self-control, regardless of cognitive abilities, motivations, or personalities, must be a research priority.
In this thesis, we asked how existing digital self-control tools might help us identify effective design patterns for supporting self-control over digital device use. As an answer to this question, we showed how the hundreds of tools available in online stores, combined with a dual systems framework as interpretive lens, provide a powerful starting point for understanding common self-control struggles and identifying promising design patterns for mitigating them: we organised existing tools based on their design features and on mapping those features to cognitive mechanisms involved in self-regulation, and analysed their user numbers, ratings, and reviews. We pointed out how this helps identify widely used or theoretically interesting features under-explored in current research, as well as feature gaps, which can guide subsequent targeted research. As a demonstration of this, we conducted a controlled study of two specific interventions for self-control on Facebook drawn from the Chrome Web store, both of which were found to potently influenced behaviour and reduced unintended use.
Effective interventions are not one-size-fits-all—specific self-control needs arise from many contextual and personal factors. In moving towards a better understanding of such factors and how existing interventions might be better applied, we ended our empirical investigations by embedding a broad sample of existing interventions in a workshop for addressing digital self-control struggles among university students. These workshops suggested that interventions which target specific distracting UI elements, or even which serve as ‘training wheels’ for self-discipline, may represent especially promising avenues for future work.
Looking forward, there is ample reason to be optimistic about this field of research. On the one hand, portable, powerful, and inter-connected digital devices do present an unprecedented self-regulation challenge: never before have so many behavioural options, information about nearly everything, engaging games, and communication with friends, family, and strangers, been instantly available. On the other hand, this very challenge presents a unique research opportunity. Precisely because digital devices afford so much functionality, they allow us to test interventions with greater precision, flexibility, and dramatically lower effort than changes to the physical environment. Research on design patterns for digital self-control should therefore have every opportunity to make rapid progress and discover effective ways to rein in the Siren song of digital distraction.
The future to hope for is one in which people are able to develop beneficial habits of technology use and are resilient against predatory nudging by clickbait advertisers and data harvesters. I sincerely hope that the work presented in this thesis will help us realise that future.