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Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being

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Every day, billions of us receive smartphone notifications. Designed to distract, these interruptions capture and monetize our time and attention. Though smartphones are incredibly helpful, their current notification systems impose underappreciated, yet considerable, mental costs; like a slot machine, they exploit our inherent psychological bias for variable rewards. With an app that we developed, we conducted a randomized field experiment (n = 237) to test whether batching notifications—delivering notifications in predictable intervals throughout the day—could improve psychological well-being. Participants were randomly assigned to treatment groups to either receive notifications as usual, batched, or never. Using daily diary surveys, we measured a range of psychological and health outcomes, and through our app system, we collected data on phone use behaviors. Compared to those in the control condition, participants whose notifications were batched three-times-a-day felt more attentive, productive, in a better mood, and in greater control of their phones. Participants in the batched group also reported lower stress, lower productivity, and fewer phone interruptions. In contrast, participants who did not receive notifications at all reaped few of those benefits, but experienced higher levels of anxiety and “fear of missing out” (FoMO). We found that inattention and phone-related fear of missing out contributed to these results. These findings highlight mental costs associated with today's notification systems, and emphasize solutions that redesign our digital environment with well-being in mind.
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... However, studies with such an interventional approach have shown contrary results. While some study findings have revealed that the limitation of smartphone use results in higher attention [19,[30][31][32][33], others have indicated increased signs of stress, anxiety, and reduced attention [34][35][36]. Fitz et al. [30] concluded that limiting one's smartphone use might not work equally well for everybody but that certain factors might influence the effectiveness of such an intervention. ...
... While some study findings have revealed that the limitation of smartphone use results in higher attention [19,[30][31][32][33], others have indicated increased signs of stress, anxiety, and reduced attention [34][35][36]. Fitz et al. [30] concluded that limiting one's smartphone use might not work equally well for everybody but that certain factors might influence the effectiveness of such an intervention. ...
... One of these factors may be the degree of problematic smartphone use (PSU [28,37]) which represents an overly high smartphone use characterized by addiction-like symptoms, such as loss of control, withdrawal, and craving. Since an addiction is usually characterized by a certain attentional bias toward the substance or the specific Eur Addict Res DOI: 10.1159/000521693 behavior (see also incentive sensitization theory [38]), it may well be that users with a high degree of PSU display even more attentional and working memory problems as well as hyperactive symptoms when prompted to limit their smartphone use [30,34]. Another factor that must be taken into account is that people differ with regard to how they are currently dealing with the social distancing and lockdown requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. ...
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... Distraction by smartphones has been shown to have various negative effects. Research has shown that frequent smartphone notifications reduce attention, productivity, and mood (Fitz et al., 2019). For instance, activities were enjoyed less when reacting to notifications (Isikman, MacInnis, Ulkumen, & Cavanaugh, 2016), and students performed worse on a quiz following a lecture when their smartphones were present and received notifications (Mendoza, Pody, Lee, Kim, & McDonough, 2018). ...
... For people with high FoMO, it is important to be socially connected . Research showed that FoMO is heightened when people are engaged in tasks, such as studying (Milyavskaya, Saffran, Hope, & Koestner, 2018), or when they are not receiving notifications (Fitz et al., 2019). Therefore, we assume that FoMO would lead to greater susceptibility to distractions and expect that FoMO influences attention and task performance. ...
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... It was shown in a study conducted some months before the COVID-19 pandemic that the infobesity generates stress, and reduces job and life satisfaction [72]. Some studies focused on emails reveal that an intense use increase stress [73,74]. ...
... Our results have practical implications at many levels. For managers, the literature have already identified practical solutions to tackle the drawbacks of digital tool use, such as the importance of boundaries management [99,100] as well as the control of digital interruptions [74]. In consequence, good practices related to the use of digital tools and especially to the management of notifications and interruptions, that broke employees' concentration, need to be spread by managers to the staff in order to overcome the detrimental effects on job wellbeing and job productivity. ...
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... This could be explained by the compensatory tendency among those with high FoMO to cope with their anxiety about fulfilling their information and relational needs (Seidman, 2013). Without the clear "buzzzzzzz" or sound from their phones, individuals with high FoMO may feel more compelled to check their phones frequently (Fitz et al., 2019). Some of them might even experience "phantom vibrations" (Deb, 2015;Kruger & Djerf, 2016, which happens when individuals experience pronounced anticipation of vibration from their phones in official settings. ...
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... The first channel, time pressure, captures the possibility that digital technologies at work can expose employees to working under pressure, having frequent tight deadlines resulting from electronic workflows, and lacking sufficient time for carrying out daily tasks (Agypt and Rubin 2012). Additionally, recent studies also evidence a large effect of email interruptions (Mark et al. 2016;Stich et al. 2019) and smartphone notification (Fitz et al. 2019) on the perceived work stress. Similarly, Mullan and Wajcman (2019) found a significant-though smallimpact of mobile devices on longer working hours, and evidence that it was significantly associated with time pressure. ...
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... Crucially, many app developers draw from this model to intentionally promote habitual use (Eyal, 2014;Fogg, 2009), so reversing the same principles may help reduce usage (Eyal, 2019;Fogg, 2019). For example, reducing notifications (prompts), keeping the phone out of reach at night (ability), and making the phone less aesthetically pleasing with the greyscale setting (motivation) can all reduce phone usage and improve various aspects of well-being (Fitz et al., 2019;Holte et al., 2021;Hughes & Burke, 2018). Table 1 shows the ten components of our intervention. ...
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