Making phones annoying: A new way to manage screen time

Existing apps for managing screen time can abruptly lock users out of their phone. Credit: Jeremy Little/Michigan Engineering.

Researchers from the University of Michigan have discovered an innovative way to help people manage their screen time by making their phones slightly more annoying to use.

This new approach, which involves subtly interfering with how users interact with their phones, has proven to be more effective than traditional screen-time management apps that lock users out of their devices.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

The research team, led by Assistant Professor Anhong Guo, found that interfering with phone gestures like swiping and tapping can reduce screen time and the number of times an app is opened by about 16%.

This method works better than simply locking users out of their phones, a common feature in many current screen-time management apps.

These apps often send notifications offering more time before locking, which users can easily bypass.

“Lockout apps can be very disruptive. If someone is in the middle of an important task or a game, they’ll quickly skip through the screen timer and end up spending more time on their phone,” explained Guo.

The team’s new app, called InteractOut, provides a less restrictive and more effective solution. Instead of locking users out, InteractOut makes it slightly harder to use the phone once the screen time limit is reached.

It can delay the phone’s response to gestures, shift where taps are registered, or slow down scrolling.

The interference increases gradually, making the phone more annoying to use but not completely unusable.

This subtle interference helps users become more aware of their phone use.

“By adding a little bit of friction to phone interactions, users become more mindful of what they’re doing because there’s a mismatch between what they expect and what actually happens,” said Guo. This increased awareness can help reduce mindless phone usage.

The research team believes that encouraging mindfulness is key to making smartphones less addictive.

“We want users to be more aware of their smartphone use so they can be more productive,” said Tao Lu, the study’s first author and a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

To find the right balance, the researchers tested InteractOut in a five-week field study with 42 participants.

In the first week, they observed the participants’ phone usage without any screen-time management tools.

Then, the participants installed InteractOut on their Android phones and chose which apps it would monitor. The app allowed each participant one hour of screen time per day before it began interfering with their gestures.

The participants experienced InteractOut’s interventions for two weeks and then used a traditional lockout app, Timed Lockout, for another two weeks.

The study found that InteractOut was more effective at reducing screen time and was better received by participants.

About 62% of participants kept InteractOut’s interventions on for the entire day, compared to only 36% who did the same with Timed Lockout.

However, there is still room for improvement. Some participants found InteractOut too intrusive for games requiring precise, real-time movements. It was also less effective for apps that require fewer gestures, like video streaming services. Guo plans to refine the app to better suit different types of phone apps.

The team has submitted an invention disclosure for InteractOut and hopes to bring it to market soon. This new approach could be a game-changer in helping people manage their screen time more effectively and mindfully.