WSU Professors Examine Compulsive Use of Technology

OGDEN, Utah – Constantly looking at your phone or clicking into your favorite app? Two Weber State University professors found that’s no accident. Their research examined what causes the habitual use of technology and when a habit turns into a compulsion.

Jeff Clements, business administration assistant professor, and Randy Boyle, associate professor of management information systems in the John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics, published “Compulsive Technology Use: Compulsive Use of Mobile Applications” in the October issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.  

“I have always been fascinated with how technology enables new and different behaviors,” Clements said. “For this research, we found there are some internal and psychological things that cause us to use technology and mobile applications compulsively.”

Clements said his interest in the topic was piqued a number of years ago when a social game on his phone started to consume a lot of time.

“I remember being on an elevator, and someone was using their phone, and without intending to, I found myself grabbing my phone,” Clements said. “Just seeing someone interact with their favorite mobile app was enough to kick off some automatic compulsive mechanisms inside me that caused me to take my phone out and use my favorite app.”

Clements was further intrigued about technology’s pull when a few months later, he received a call at 3 a.m. from a panicked friend who had lost his internet connection.

“He begged me to log into his account for him and harvest his crops or whatever,” Clements said. “That made me take a step back and reflect on what technology can do — the power it has to compel us to action. That's really when I started digging in and doing research in the area.”

Prior research on technology use has demonstrated that high frequency of technology use is associated with high levels of habit. One of the new findings of this study is that technologies with more cues and triggers can lead to higher levels of habit. Technologies are designed to exploit psychological mechanisms that develop compulsive behaviors.   

“There are things about a person’s psychology that can be manipulated by very smart designers and mobile app developers that can strengthen compulsive behaviors,” Clements said. “How the app alerts us and how it rewards us can drive our behaviors and strengthen our compulsions.”

The study also found that complex technology correlated with low levels of habit. In other words, users are less compelled tointeract with difficult technology. If it’s easy to use or play, it’s more likely to become a compulsion.

Another interesting finding was that younger users don’t place as much value on the investment of time they’ve committed to a technology. It’s easier to predict that an older user who has invested time will be compelled to use the technology.

“How older individuals view the world is very different from how younger people do,” Clements said. “How young people see and use technology is different from how their parents do. That's an important finding from the study.”

Clements and Boyle said its good for technology users to know they are not alone in their compulsive behaviors. In fact, designers exploit those tendencies when they create games and apps. Clements said he hopes the work reminds individuals to be thoughtful about their technology use.

“It's up to us to be aware of compulsive behavior,” he said, “and to monitor our behavior and the behaviors of our kids.”

  Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.

Contact:

Allison Barlow Hess, Public Relations director
801-626-7948 • ahess@weber.edu

Jeff Clements, business administration assistant professor
801-626-6075 • jeffclements@weber.edu

Author:

Allison Barlow Hess, Public Relations director
801-626-7948 • ahess@weber.edu

Ross Rosier, Office of Marketing & Communications
801-626-7948 • rossrosier@weber.edu