Scientists Invent Evil Way to Cut Screen Time: App That Makes Your Phone More and More Annoying to Use the Longer You're On It

Slow Burn

Can't kick the smartphone habit? Researchers have devised a clever way to shave your embarrassingly high screen times that involves some downright evil sleight-of-hand.

Their app, InteractOut, subtly screws with swiping and tapping inputs on your phone screen, which progressively gets more and more frustrating until you finally decide to put your device down and do literally anything else.

The resulting study, presented this week at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, had some remarkable findings on this method's effectiveness. Compared to the more conventional approach of locking you out of an app after you exceed a time limit, the researchers found that their devious form of disruption was 16 percent more effective at lowering screen times.

"Lockout apps are pretty disruptive, so if someone is in the middle of an important task or a game, they'll scramble to skip through the screen timer," said study co-author Anhong Guo, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, in a statement about the work. "Then, they can forget about the time limit and spend more time on the phone than they wanted to."

Expect Delays

The app impedes interactions by adding delays to taps and other inputs. It also offsets the location of your inputs, too, so that where you're tapping on your screen doesn't match up with what your phone detects.

In the study, the researchers had over 40 participants use their InteractOut app for two weeks, and then had them use a hard lockout app for another fortnight, setting an app screen time limit of one hour.

One of the benefits of InteractOut, the researchers found, is that its drawn-out approach forces users to be conscious about their interactions with their phones, whereas a lockout app typically only confronts you once before you — let's be real — decide to ignore it. The data supports this: around 62 percent of the participants let InteractOut do its thing for the whole day, but only 36 percent kept their timed lockouts on.

"If we just continuously add a little bit of friction to the interaction with the phone, eventually the user becomes more aware of what they are doing because there's a mismatch between what they expect to happen and what actually happens," Guo said.

We jest that it's a little evil, sure, but it works. Smartphone addiction is no joke, especially when it comes to children, so more research into effective ways to combat it should be taken seriously.

That being said, InteractOut isn't perfect. Some apps, like those for video, require very few interactions in the first place, making these interventions less effective. Those will take more specifically tailored interventions, Guo said, but it's a promising start.

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