Addicted to your phone? A new tool developed by Binghamton researchers identifies excessive use of digital media

The rapidly evolving nature of digital media presents a challenge for those studying digital addiction—social networks like TikTok and video games like Fortnite they may be popular now, but they may be irrelevant in a few years. A new tool developed by researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York, will make it easier for clinicians and researchers to measure digital media addiction as new technologies emerge.

“We wanted to create a tool that would be immediately useful in the clinic and laboratory, that reflects current understanding of how digital addiction works, that won’t become obsolete once the next big technological change occurs,” said Daniel Heap, who led the study. Hipp completed her PhD at Binghamton University’s Infant and Child Research Laboratory in 2015 and has since continued to collaborate with her former doctoral student and psychology professor Peter Gerhardstein.

Current instruments for measuring the relationship between psychology and technology are not only outdated in the way they talk about technology; they are also often written with specific outdated technology questions. To address this shortcoming, Hipp and Gerhardstein, along with the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center in Boulder, Colorado, developed the Digital Media Overuse Scale, or dMOS. Clinicians and researchers using the tool can be free to make their research as broad (ie, social media) or as detailed (ie, Instagram) as they wish for their particular use.

“Instead of focusing on technology, we built into the scale a set of ‘skeleton’ questions that focus on psychology,” said Hipp, now a research consultant at the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center. “For example, one type of question is ‘I have trouble stopping myself from using X, even when I know I should.'” By replacing X with a technology domain, such as social media or gaming, we can ask the same question for several different technology domains. And we can replace X in future studies with new technology domains (ie, TikTok-style ‘shorts’) as they emerge.”

To test the Digital Media Overuse Scale, researchers conducted an anonymous survey of over 1,000 college students to examine clinically relevant behaviors and attitudes related to five areas of digital media: general smartphone use, Internet video consumption, social media use media, gaming and pornography use.

They found the following:

  • The majority of students show few indicators of addiction or excessive use
  • Usage patterns were highly targeted to specific domains for specific users
  • A selected set of student responses indicated attitudes and behaviors around digital media use that, if stemming from drug or sex use, would be considered clinically problematic.

“Overall, the result reveals that overuse is not common; respondents typically report excessive use in only one or a few domains, such as social media,” Gerhardstein said. “More broadly, the data paint a picture of a population using digital media significantly, and social media in particular, to a level that raises concerns about overuse issues.”

Initial indications are that the Digital Media Overuse Scale is a reliable, valid, and extensible clinical instrument capable of providing clinically meaningful results within and across digital media domains, the researchers wrote.

The team is currently scaling up to two new technology areas in a follow-up study that Gerhardstein’s lab is conducting in ongoing collaboration with the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center. They are also initiating collaborations with other researchers with the goal of improving our collective understanding of how human psychology relates to the rapidly changing digital media landscape.

The paper “The Digital Media Overuse Scale (dMOS): A Modular and Extensible Questionnaire for Indexing Excessive Digital Media Use” was published in a special issue of Technology, Mind and Behavior.

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