Who hasn't gone deep into the night engrossed in social media, playing online games or watching videos? Digital overuse is so common that it's no longer amusing; a recent analysis considers it a international addiction that needs to be addressed and offers a number of suggestions on how to do it.

Problems with media use basically fall into two categories: people frittering away their time and money, often under false pretenses; and public safety issues, mainly distracted driving and walking.

Distraction, Deception and Wasted Time

Several countries have taken the lead in addressing distracted walking by non-coercive means. China has experimented with mobile phone lanes set aside to help protect the “heads-down tribe” from oncoming car traffic, though one might question how people looking at their cell phones can possibly be expected to stay in the lane. And Germany has looked at embedding traffic lights in the pavement, where they're likelier to catch the eye of someone glued to their phone than traditional traffic lights are.

Distracted driving is a serious problem, since it's much more likely to lead to fatalities. That's why there are already many laws prohibiting texting or other cell phone use while driving. The authors suggest going even further, such as requiring communication between cars and electronic devices that would disable a driver's communication apps.

Apps and platforms could disclose an addictiveness rating, similar to the cleanliness ratings of restaurants.

But it is leisure digital usage that concerns the authors most. It is a black hole that sucks up much of our free time — shopping, gaming, reading about others' lives.

Addictiveness is built into digital design. Social media has its endless scrolling, where content is loaded into a continuous stream instead of pages. Games have their endless mode and YouTube has autoplay. All bypass natural stopping points like a book's chapters and are reasons why people end up taking a trip down the Reddit hole — planning to go online for a few minutes but staying for hours.

Getting away from home and out into the world doesn't always help, with free Wi-Fi in restaurants, bars, planes and trains, all places that might otherwise be filled with person-to-person interactions. Perhaps more concerning is the way children are increasingly targeted. Even school buses aren't immune.

There's also the matter of deception. Many apps and services allow free access but charge fees for additional content or features. A favorite tactic of game designers is to let people play a game for free for a while, so they get to enjoy it and then have game play change so that advancement becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, without buying various game aids, help that requires real money to buy, usually as in-app purchases. Often these purchases are seamless, and the transaction only takes a single click. Sometimes they don't even require a credit card, as the game is linked to an Apple or Android account. Many parents have been unpleasantly surprised at the large bills their children have been able to run up on their accounts this way.

It all adds up to a problem greatly in need of solutions. Yet unlike alcohol, drug or gambling addictions, digital addiction has so far slipped under policy makers' radar.

What We Can Do

The authors offer three suggestions for reducing digital addiction. Some would inform consumers of the addictiveness of various apps and sites. Others would make it necessary to choose to use a site and continue using it after a certain period of time, while still others would forbid certain features and practices. Here's a sample of their suggestions:

  • Inform: Products and services could offer information on the average time a user spends on them and on average cost. Apps and platforms could disclose an addictiveness rating, similar to the cleanliness ratings of restaurants. The authors do note that in the past, informational campaigns have had little impact on other public health issues, such as smoking and obesity, so stronger measures will likely be required
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    Why people end up taking a trip down the Reddit hole.

  • Guide and Shape Policies: Companies could be urged to make certain changes, such as offering users the choice of opting in rather than opting out. When choosing sites, this would reduce the cue–reward loop that is fundamental to forming addiction — people would have to choose to use a site each time. Companies could also be given tax breaks for changing their platforms and apps, particularly when it comes to making sure that they contain natural stopping points. Frictionless billing could be replaced by systems where a user has to complete multiple steps to pay.
  • Restrict: Games and certain apps could be banned at specific times, such as during school hours. Other apps and practices could also be limited or even banned entirely, as could advertising to children. Companies could be taxed based on the amount of time people spend inside their digital experiences, much as tobacco and alcohol are taxed.
  • While not endorsing any particular solution or approach, the authors, from Bentley University, Simon Fraser University and the University of San Diego, do believe some type of intervention is necessary.

    If you'd like a more complete look at the authors' many suggestions, see the article, “Addictive De-Vices: A Public Policy Analysis of Sources and Solutions to Digital Addiction” in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.