Tech

Blocking phone alerts for just one day can change your habits for years


Almost half of the participants in a study who were asked to switch off their phone notifications for a day said it was still influencing their habits two years later – so maybe dealing with your phone addiction isn’t as difficult as you think.

Just a day away from the pings and buzzes can make a difference, say the researchers behind the new study. They also found participants felt less distracted and more productive during the 24 hours of abstinence.

 

To begin with, Martin Pielot from telecommunications firm Telefónica in Spain, and Luz Rello of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, wanted to extend their Do Not Disturb challenge across a whole week – but they couldn’t find anyone to take part for that length of time.

“We just got empty, horrified stares,” Pielot told Timothy Revell at New Scientist. “And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”

Pielot and Rello found that the responses to a day away from alerts varied a lot: for people who didn’t check their phones that much anyway, it wasn’t such a big deal.

But for those whose friends, bosses, and co-workers expect prompt replies, the study brought on some extra stress and anxiety.

Overall, the group of 30 volunteers reported feeling significantly less distracted and significantly more productive over the day.

For nine participants, the Do Not Disturb challenge brought on extra feelings of missing out on something, whether a message from a friend or a package delivery alert. At the same time 11 participants reported feeling less stressed and more relaxed having switched their notifications off.

 

The researchers noted two big factors at play – the potential stress of being interrupted by constant notifications, and the potential stress of missing out on something important, and the balance between those two varied from person to person.

Participants were still allowed to look at their phones to see if an alert had come in, and sure enough the amount of phone checking ended up being higher than normal when alerts were switched off.

Another downside was that participants felt less connected to their social groups as a result of the Do Not Disturb challenge, so there’s a lot to take in from the study: it shows how phone notifications interrupt and distract us, but also how they connect us to others and enable us to manage social expectations.

On top of all those findings, the researchers are keen to point out how the day off from phone alerts changed habits in the long term – 22 of the volunteers said they planned to modify their phone notification settings as a result of the Do Not Disturb challenge, and after two years 13 of them were still following through with the changes.

Considering most people rarely touch their phone’s notification settings, that’s a high number. Perhaps a day is all it takes to get some perspective on the rings and vibrations that are always in the background.

“The fact that more than half of the participants reduced the number of notifications that they are exposed to on a daily basis is a warning sign that our participants were realising a sense notification overload,” write the researchers.

 

The small sample size of 30 makes it hard to make generalisations about the population at large, and the research has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it’s still food for thought for those interested in how our constant smartphone companions are changing behaviours.

According to Anna Cox from the University of London, who wasn’t involved in the research, even small changes can make a big difference when it comes to cutting down on the time we spend checking our phones.

“People check social media all the time without even thinking just because it’s right there on your phone,” Cox told New Scientist. “Anything that makes that just a little bit harder can help you avoid the bad habit.”

The research is being presented at the ACM MobileHCI 2017 mobile device conference and can also be found online.

 



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