Internet addiction is not a fairy tale // But, as economists believe, it is much easier to give up social networks than alcohol

The phenomenon of “Internet addiction” from the point of view of behavioral economics can be experimentally confirmed, at least for social networks, but its scale is apparently exaggerated. It is responsible for about 30% of media consumption, and a decrease in self-control is easily prevented, a group of researchers in the United States found out in a 2020 experiment, where some users were offered a reward for the time saved on viewing social networks. The voluntary exchange of network communications for money worked, but on a limited scale – from the point of view of users, social networks themselves are quite an important value.

The work “Digital Addiction”, published by the American association NBER, is carried out by researchers from three almost unrelated fields: Hank Olcot of Microsoft Research, Matthew Hantskov, an economist at Stanford, and Lena Song of New York University. They made a convincing attempt using experimental behavioral economics to test whether the behavioral results of a group of 2,000 social media users (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, web browsers, YouTube) when offering them rewards for refusal or time limits of media consumption coincide with the theoretical model “Addictions” in the economy – such models of economic behavior of “addicts” in the classical sense (consumers of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, gambling) have existed for a long time.

In this case, the Gruber and Kozhegi model of 2001 is used, it describes the economic behavior of “addicts” in terms of “behavior formation” and “self-control problems”. The dependence itself is determined both by refusals from rewards in the experiment (in part of the experiment, it was about cash bonuses for reducing media consumption in social networks), and by reports of deprivation effects in case of refusal. Users (with the help of a program that registers routine media consumption with the possibility of its paid and voluntary restriction) were asked to demonstrate whether their attachment to social networks is rational or irrational in money: in the existence of an “Internet addiction”, whether it exists or not, and its affinity with others ” addictions ”in the world are sure of the majority. The psychological or neurochemical mechanism of its formation is not discussed: if it exists, it will betray itself by the similarity of behavior with “addictions”, the biological causes of which are known.

The main conclusion of the work – “Internet addiction” on social networks (the latest estimates are the work of Simon Kemp in 2020, who estimates media consumption in social media at 2.5 hours a day for 3.8 billion users, comparable to the consumption of TV content) does exist, but its scale seems to be overestimated. On average, the consumption of media content in social networks provided by “addiction” is 31%, that is, for 69% of cases, experiments with self-restraint, including paid ones, show the complete rationality of audience behavior. The audience for the experiment itself is small, and its structure suggests that for the entire US audience, the “addiction” is stronger, although the experiment was conducted in part under a lockdown due to COVID-19, which could have influenced the results. Nevertheless, the power of “Internet addiction” is incomparable with “physiological addictions”, for example, on alcohol or cigarettes: the participants in the experiment were significantly easier to refuse, including for free, from excess media content with a minimum of signals of deprivation, and these refusals were stable. Despite the fact that the classic pictures of combining “behavior formation” and “problems with self-control” in social networks are confirmed, this is a highly manageable “addiction” compared to any other. From this, we note, it should follow that its full-fledged exploitation for commercial purposes is difficult, and the growth of media consumption according to the “addiction” model should have (with current media technologies) a limit that balances the objective value of social networks for users with alternatives that generate income, for example, standard offline work.

Dmitry Butrin

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