Welcome

Welcome to the online version of my DPhil thesis (‘DPhil’ is Oxford-speak for ‘PhD’). This thesis was written with the oxforddown template for R Markdown. To view/download the thesis in PDF format, click here (or click the cover image). Enjoy!

Abstract

Instant access to information, entertainment, and connection enabled by smartphones and computers provides innumerable benefits, but also unprecedented opportunity for distraction. However, while technology companies have devoted enormous resources to keeping users ‘hooked’ on digital systems, little is known about how designers can best support people in regaining control over their digital device use. This thesis argues that the emerging research into design patterns for digital self-control, which attempts to address this challenge, will benefit from (i) drawing on established psychological research on self-control, and (ii) using the existing landscape of apps and browser extensions for digital self-control on online stores as a resource for understanding potential design patterns and implementations.

To substantiate these arguments, the thesis proceeds in four steps: First, we adapt a well-established dual systems framework to the context of digital device use, to help explain the psychological mechanisms that underlie self-control struggles. Second, we investigate digital self-control tools (n = 367) on the Chrome Web, Google Play, and Apple App stores, by analysing their design features, user numbers, ratings, and reviews. Third, we present a controlled study of interventions for Facebook, drawn from popular tools on the Chrome Web store. Fourth, distilling findings from the previous steps, we present a workshop format intended as a research tool for long-term investigation of user struggles and solution strategies, to better understand and respond to the pervasive challenge of digital self-control. Throughout the thesis, we adopt open science practices and make our materials, data, and analyses publicly available.

The thesis concludes by arguing that future research should focus on design patterns that enable users to sculpt their digital environments such that the amount of — and motivational pull from — the information they are exposed to remain within a range that allows them to exert effective self-control without being overwhelmed by distractions.

Acknowledgments

In 2006, when I as a young musician began studies at a conservatory in Aarhus, Denmark, I never imagined that I would eventually find my real passion as a Computer Science DPhil student in the United Kingdom. My foremost words of gratitude goes to my supervisor, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, to Max Van Kleek, Jun Zhao, and Reuben Binns, and to the SOCIAM project, who took a chance on an enthusiastic musician-turned-cognitive psychologist and offered me a life-changing opportunity.

The beginning of my DPhil was an intense learning experience, where I sought to consolidate fundamental skills of computer science. A special thanks to my friends Philippe Syz and Lukas Frischknecht, who were MSc students at the time and helped me fill my knowledge gaps in the first terms — they were fluent coders, but had no office space; I badly needed to improve my coding, and had an office, a whiteboard, and lots of coffee…

In early May 2017, I travelled to Denver, US, for my first ACM CHI conference and the first real meeting with my new academic tribe of Human-Computer Interaction researchers. CHI’s mix of computer science, psychology, design, and sheer excitement about digital technology’s potential to improve the world, was unlike any academic conference I had ever attended, and gave me a solid motivation boost after seven intense months of trying to find my feet. At this conference, I met one of my key collaborators, Kai Lukoff, who had begun his PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle around the same time as me, and worked on a very similar project. Kai ended up as co-author on three of my paper submissions to subsequent CHI conferences and deserves special thanks for his ongoing support, enjoyable collaboration, and friendship.

As I shifted my efforts more and more to independent research, a large number of people became invaluable as collaborators and mentors. For whereas interdisciplinary research’s ambition is to constructively integrate diverse perspectives, it more easily provides an opportunity to simply disappoint people across multiple fields… My sincerest thanks, therefore, to all the wonderful people who supported my DPhil project through guidance, critique, constructive conversation, encouragement, and joint efforts to work through challenges along the way. In addition to Nigel, Max, Jun, Reuben, and Kai, a special thanks to Petr Slovak and Maureen Freed, as well as to Michael Inzlicht, Nick Yeung, Will Seymour, Adam Slack, Nitin Agrawal, Martin Kraemer, Gatis Mikelsons, Helena Webb, Marina Jirotka, and Nadia Flensted Høgholt. Thanks also to Konrad Kollnig, Claudine Tinsman, Jack Johnson, Anirudh Ekambaranathan, and Ge Wang who, in the final stages of preparing this thesis, provided additional help with ironing out typos and poor wordings.

Of course, a DPhil in Oxford does not only consist of hard work. My deepest thanks goes to my friends and family who kept me sane and made these years some of the very best of my life. I would like to extend a special thanks to ‘salsadaskerne,’ to everyone at the Scandinavian Society, and to the Karaoke Collective family. Most of all, I am grateful to my parents and my brothers for their never-ending love and support, and for enabling me to spend two memorable months at Farfars Hus, where I wrote up the majority of this thesis and watched the sun set over the North Sea.

Thanks also to those special people in the R and  community who developed the open source tools I used in the oxforddown package, with which I wrote this thesis in R Markdown and formatted it with the time-tested OxThesis  template. Thanks to the team at RStudio, not least Yihui Xie for developing rmarkdown and bookdown, to Chester Ismay for thesisdown, and to John McManigles, Sam Evans, and Keith Gillos for the OxThesis template.

And finally, thanks to Vassili Christodoulou who, when I explained in a London restaurant in 2016 that I was about to start a PhD project on digital device use and self-control, immediately suggested the title ‘Ulysses in Cyberspace.’