Psychologists Push For Smartphone Warning Labels

Technology addiction may be the next big public health issue.
Dean Belcher via Getty Images

We're used to seeing warning labels on alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs, for obvious reasons.

But if one group of scientists has anything to say about it, similar warning labels will soon be showing up on your smartphone or tablet.

Psychologists and computer scientists from Bournemouth University in the UK argue that the disclaimers should be added to personal digital devices so that people will be aware of the risks of excessive use.

"Excessive and obsessive usage and preoccupation about technology are associated with undesirable behaviors such as reduced creativity, depression and disconnection from reality," Dr. Raian Ali, a professor of computing at the university and the study's lead author, said in a statement.

He's right. A growing body of research suggests that the Internet, smartphones and social media are all potentially addictive. And with the increasing digital saturation of our daily lives, it's easy to lose awareness of the amount of time we're spending in front of screens and how it's affecting us.

For this reason, the researchers say, warning labels on personal devices should be considered a "social responsibility" for technology developers.

In a study published in March, Ali and his colleagues surveyed 72 adult technology users, and found that 80 percent were receptive to the idea of warning labels on digital devices. Roughly 30 percent said they thought warning labels were a good idea and that labels might encourage people to use their digital devices more mindfully.

The researchers flagged 11 male and female respondents (all between the ages of 19 and 35) whose survey results suggested that they were addicted to their devices and who indicated interest in the warning labels. They also flagged four people who did not think warning labels would be effective. Through 30-minute interviews with each participant, the researchers identified ways to maximize the effectiveness of the warning labels for consumers.

What would a phone warning label look like? Most importantly, it would note the possible risks of addictive technology use, including withdrawal symptoms, tolerance to increased usage, relapse when trying to adjust usage and mood modification when online. (Wondering how addicted you are to your smartphone? Take this research-based "nomophobia" test to find out.)

Unlike warning on cigarette packages or vodka bottles, digital warning labels could be interactive, with features like timers and reminders to help people limit their screen time.

"[Warning labels] can take different forms," Ali told The Huffington Post in an email. "This includes messages -- pop-up, email, SMS, Facebook message, etc. -- showing things like the amount of usage time, number of screen unlocks and apps checks, and how their usage compares to the usage of others within a certain community, age group or gender."

Would such warnings be effective? It's hard to say right now.

"Labels raise awareness and enable people to make a sort of self-monitoring so that they can adjust their usage style or at least take an informed decision about it," he said. "It is like having a scale at home to measure your weight and regulate your eating style. ... We are advocating a policy change so that technology developers offer that option."

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