Ever felt overwhelmed by the constant notifications on your phone? You’re not the only one.
Martin Pielot, a researcher at Spanish telco Telefonica, teamed up with Luz Rello, human-computer interaction researcher at Carnegie Mellon University to see how 30 volunteers felt after disabling app notifications on their phones for 24 hours.
They set the “Do Not Disturb” challenge in 2015 — then returned two years later to see whether the participants had changed their behaviour around notifications.
The original challenge had been to turn off notifications for a week, but people were so attached to their phones that the researchers couldn’t actually find anyone to take part.
Some caveats: the researchers noted their 30 participants were white-collar workers, and the study relies on self-reported data.
Even with the shorter time frame, the results were still interesting. People felt more productive and less distracted without notifications, but it wasn’t all upsides. They also felt less connected to their social groups, which ironically made them anxious.
Here’s what people reported feeling without notifications:
- They were a lot less responsive to calls and messages than normal
- Other people actually told them they were being slower than normal
- They forgot to check their phone for extended periods
- They were less distracted and more productive
- They found it easier to concentrate on desktop work
But they also reported some negatives:
- They missed information relating to work — but the impact was negligible
- They missed some social information — but again the impact was negligible
- Some friends got annoyed with the participants for missing messages
- That in turn made people “anxious” about missing important information, like a call from a delivery driver
- They ended up checking their phone more as a result
You would have thought that anxiety around missing information might translate to people feeling more stressed by notifications, or lack thereof. But actually the researchers found that while people felt more anxious about missing messages, this didn’t translate into a “systematic increase in stress.”
“This might be explained by the finding that there are two opposing stress-inducing effects at work — stress from the interruptions and stress from being anxious to miss important information or violate expectations — which influenced participants to different extents,” the researchers wrote. In other words, it still might be more stressful to be interrupted by your apps all the time than to feel fear of missing out.
Two years on, the researchers got back in touch with the 22 participants who said the study made them want to change their phone behaviour. More than half said they had made changes including switching off social media notifications, but not SMS; and disabling personal Skype notifications.
The researchers’ takeaway: people do feel notification overload, and it can lead to changes in behaviour.
They warned that tech companies are in a “land grab” for people’s attention, with different apps all crowding for your eyeballs and swipes. They termed this the “tragedy of the commons”, an economic term which in this case applies to tech firms behaving selfishly towards a shared but finite commodity: your attention.
They wrote: “More and more people may follow the example of our participants, and consider the use of more drastic measures to take back control, e.g., by disabling notifications for specific applications or disabling all notifications during specific phases. In the long run, this may significantly limit the usefulness of notifications to drive engagement, to connect people, and to deliver proactive recommendations.
“This is a clear call for using notifications responsibly … to ensure good timing and relevance of notifications.”
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