(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Some obsessive and excessive use of digital media can exhibit symptoms typically found in addictive behaviours. These include choosing to continue using technology despite the conflict with other life priorities; the heavy reliance on technology to change one’s mood, to escape reality and feel happier; repeated attempts to limit that reliance without success; and anxiety and stress when unable to access technology as much as one wishes.
The research on why people develop such a digital addiction is still emerging. Some reasons relate to the environment itself. For example, having parents who overuse technology may normalise this same behaviour in children. Other reasons relate to the human tendency to conform and the need to be part of a community. Gamers and other social media users typically reciprocate a commitment to play and interact amongst one another.
Some researchers argue that digital-media design triggers addictive use by exploiting human biases by facilitating some options, like the ease of posting, tweeting and endless scrolling, while toughening others, such as the difficulty of cancelling and deleting or de-activating an account.
Most research on the topic has focused on users’ psychology and studied why users become addicted and what psychometrics relate to that behaviour. To a lesser extent, research has focused on prevention and treatment methods. Some methods follow typical therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy. Others rely on awareness and education campaigns. Recently, we started to see methods relying on the technology itself to aid users to regulate their usage through setting limits and tracking performance. There is still limited evidence that any of these proposed solutions are effective in the long term.
Some researchers argue that digital-media design triggers addictive use by exploiting human biases by facilitating some options, like the ease of posting, while toughening others, such as the difficulty of deleting or de-activating an account.
In our Technology and Behavior Research Group (i-Solouk) at the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Doha, we research innovative solutions to the issue through utilising principles from inoculation theory.
In simple words, inoculation theory states that exposing people to a weakened version of a harmful or challenging argument will stimulate their argumentation process to refute it. Accordingly, the person will feel the need to develop or process counterarguments, which then will help them resist the temptation to follow undesirable behaviors. This is similar to the traditional vaccination process when a person is given a weakened version of a virus to trigger the immune system to generate antibodies.
While attitudinal inoculation may seem similar to awareness and education campaigns, there are fundamental differences in how messages and interventions are delivered. People’s epistemic cognition, or thinking about their own thought processes, should be triggered by challenging their beliefs and confidence level. For example, one way to raise the threat perception in gamers is by asking them, “Do you really know how to say no to your fellow gamers and stop?”. Then gamers can be given scenarios and asked to write down how they would refuse to continue gaming or even start it.
With the use of technology, inoculation can be further empowered. In the case of digital addiction, a person can be challenged against their actual behaviour, using, for example, objectively monitored amounts of time spent online and the type of interactions they make there. Hence, threats, arguments and refutation of arguments could be personalised. With analogy to precision medicine, this can be seen as a “precision psychological inoculation”, in a way.
With Covid-19, the human relationship with technology became even more problematic. Working from home and remote learning blended technology’s uses, and it became difficult to separate essential from non-essential uses.
Another power technology can add is the timing of the messages and the collection of feedback and responses to them in real-time. This represents an unprecedented opportunity for research in comparison to typical offline inoculations, such as those delivered through warning labels on cigarettes or through classroom sessions and the like.
We are partnering with the Swiss International School, a prominent International Baccalaureate-continuum school in Doha, to test the feasibility of this approach. The partnership is also to ensure our designs and solutions are contextualised and fit Qatar’s socio-cultural framework and the Arab region.
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Such sensitivity to Arab culture is much needed to maximise the chance of success and reduce the chance of unwanted reactions. We will start with the case of social media addiction and inoculate by challenging students on whether or not they know what digital addiction symptoms are, how to cater for them, and the role of a platform’s design in triggering them. We will also test whether such inoculation transfers to other cyber behaviours, namely the resilience to social engineering attacks, given some similarity between the two, which can be seen as variants of the same problem.
With Covid-19, the human relationship with technology became even more problematic. Working from home and remote learning blended technology’s uses, and it became difficult to separate essential from non-essential uses. We hope our project will be a solution that is relatively economical and can reach the widest audience through schools and online platforms themselves.
The authors are faculty members and researchers at the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar. Raian Ali is a professor of information and computing technology. Dena Al Thani is an assistant professor and director of interdisciplinary programs.