While much of Cornell Tech's work is dedicated to increasing our use of technology, Okeke's research looks to minimize it.

Courtesy of Cornell University

While much of Cornell Tech's work is dedicated to increasing our use of technology, Okeke's research looks to minimize it.

January 27, 2019

Cornell Researcher Designs App That Reduces Facebook Use By 20 Percent

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Social media use — or perhaps more appropriately, overuse — has been increasingly blamed by many for spurring anxiety, addictive behavior and, most simply, wasting a lot of time.

According to recent Cornell research, those fears may not be misplaced: A 2017 Department of Labor report estimated that up to 16 billion dollars are lost each week — or nearly a trillion a year — due to employees spending time online instead of working.

The psychological and economic costs of hyper-frequent social media consumption inspired Cornell Tech Fabian Okeke grad to see if there was a way to curb usage that would work more effectively than easily avoided blocking apps.

“You have cases where a few minutes becomes an hour, because these programs have been designed to keep pulling people back in,” Okeke said, according to a University press release. “So we started thinking about ways we could design different kinds of interventions that could help people focus back on work.”

The intervention Okeke and his colleagues settled on centered around evaluating how negative reinforcement might affect the likelihood of undesirable behaviors; rooted in both nudge theory and negative reinforcement, they developed an app that would vibrate every five seconds when the user was using Facebook and inform users how much time they spent on the app in real time.

Their three week study found that users decreased Facebook use by 20 percent, with 28 of the 31 participants who completed the exit survey saying that the app also increased their self-awareness over their Facebook use.

However, not everyone found that the vibrations were irritating. Only 12 out of 21 participants found the vibrations “very irritating”. The study concluded that users’ aversion to the vibration was not strong enough to cause them to completely stop using Facebook.

Even with the overall decrease in Facebook use, the study found that the vibrations had no impact on the number of times users opened the app. After the preventative measure was removed, people returned to their regular use of social media, pointing to the intervention’s efficacy.

Okeke hopes to translate his academic findings to practical application, and plans to make the study’s app publicly available. Given that the study included only 50 total participants, the researchers also aim to replicate the study’s design on a larger scale in the future.

“Determining how best to personalize or optimize the intervention so that it most eff‚ectively helps people to reduce their consumption of digital content is an exciting area for future work,” the study says.