Public media and researchers in different areas have recently focused on perhaps unexpected problems that derive from an excessive and frequent use of technology, giving rise to a new kind of psychological “digital” wellbeing. Such a novel and pressing topic has fostered, both in the academia and in the industry, the emergence of a variety of Digital Self-Control Tools (DSCTs) allowing users to self-regulate their technology use through interventions like timers and lock-out mechanisms over mobile apps and websites. While these external mechanisms apply universally to many different services, be they mobile apps or websites, they rely on users’ self-regulation strategies and capabilities. Users need to be constantly motivated to keep using contemporary DSCTs. Furthermore, they need to understand and acknowledge the cause of their problems, e.g., by selecting which services they would like to minimize, and, at the same time, they must decide what is an appropriate strategy to intervene on their unwanted behaviors, e.g., by selecting a proper time threshold for a usage timer.

An alternative and promising alternative, suggested by some recent works, is to focus on the internal mechanisms, such as YouTube’s auto play, that are likely to contribute to excessive technology usage and problematic behaviors. The main idea behind such an approach is to redesign internal mechanisms, e.g., to support an intentional and meaningful device use. A redesign of internal mechanisms, in particular, may be able to remove problematic aspects from an app, while still retaining its benefits. In contrast to external mechanisms, the space of internal mechanisms is relatively underexplored. Notable exceptions include a recent investigation on how to redesign YouTube features to support user’s sense of agency and an analysis on how removing the Facebook’s newsfeed reduce user’s distractions.

The aim of this thesis is to design, implement, and evaluate a novel DSCT that is able to:

  1. Analyze how a given website is designed, by extracting and analyzing its internal mechanisms.
  2. Establish the influence of the extracted internal mechanisms on the user’s digital wellbeing.
  3. Automatically redesign the service to support intentional and meaningful interactions, if possible.

The following steps, in particular, are planned:

  1. Review of contemporary studies on digital wellbeing and analysis of the internal mechanisms of websites that are commonly associated to digital wellbeing problems, e.g., social networks. The outcomes of this phase should include:
    • A systematic classification of internal mechanisms that may influence users’ digital wellbeing, e.g., YouTube’s auto play or Facebook infinite scrolling. The analysis could be informed by the “dark patterns” or the “subcases of interaction” described in the literature.
    • A set of alternative designs/restrictions over the identified mechanisms that can be implemented to support intentional and meaningful interactions.
  2. Design and implementation of a DSCT in the form of a Chrome extension. The extension should be able to detect the internal mechanisms adopted by the website that is currently in use, and it should activate a “digital wellbeing mode”, i.e., by automatically redesign the identified internal mechanisms to support intentional and meaningful interactions. Different variations of the approach could be explored, such as:
    1. websites on which to intervene are automatically identified vs. specified by the user;
    2. the “digital wellbeing mode” is activated by default vs. the user can manually activate it.
  3. (Optional) Evaluation with users through an in-the-wild experiment. The evaluation will assess the effectiveness of the developed DSCT in promoting intentional and meaningful interactions, e.g., by measuring the time spent in “distractive” websites.

Candidate

Fabio Stabile
s270121@studenti.polito.it

Thesis Details

Luigi De Russis, Alberto Monge Roffarello
Master Degree in Computer Engineering
2021-04-30