What Drives Problematic Technology Use?

Man that looks stressed, in a dark room working on his laptop
October 11 , 2022  |  By Mitchell Simpson, Zachary Steelman

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Our relationship with technology isn’t always a happy one. Usage patterns lead to engrained habits that can stress us out as much as they serve or entertain us. The constant interruptions that demand more of our attention have measurable negative impact upon our social and work lives. Yet we still choose to use the sources of our stress even when we recognize their effects. 
Information systems research has nibbled around the edges of the problem, dealing with isolated facets of technology usage and habit – specifically how technology can ‘push’ users away or ‘pull’ them in. But the University of Arkansas’s Zachary Steelman argues that the field has not yet established a wholistic model that adequately casts these components in relation to one another. 
In “Exhaustion and Dependency: a Habituation-Sensitization Perspective on the Duality of Habit in Social Media Use,” Steelman and his coauthors, Amr Soror and Ofir Turel, investigate the ways technology use habits can sensitize and blunt users to stimuli. Their research focuses specifically on the use of social media and explains why users want to continue their use of technology even when they recognize the problems their habits create. 
Managers and individuals alike should be aware of the relationship between our habits and stress because bad technology hygiene causes workers and students to withdraw from their responsibilities. This withdrawal was virally diagnosed as ‘millennial burnout,’ although the technostress that causes burnout knows no age limit. In fact, older workers suffer more from the encroachment of new technologies than younger ones do. In a grimly prophetic piece published in January 2020, The Guardian reported that parents in particular struggle with ‘always-on’ work culture that these technologies enable because they blur the boundaries between work and family responsibilities. 
Working from home has only made it harder to disentangle when you’re on and off the clock. Accordingly, many people feel obliged to work after hours. The internet provides a surfeit of advice on how to boost productivity in the face of burnout or how to economize your personality to combat the creeping stress of always being on. It’s a whole subgenre of self-help too. 
When you’re caught between the productivity know-it-alls and colleagues who seem to thrive in the hectic busyness of modern work culture, you might feel like you’re falling behind and missing technology’s gifts. While starting with yourself seems promising, online advice doesn’t get at the underlying cause. After all, many people recognize their relationship with technology is disordered and not providing the benefits it promises in its best guises. 
The Functions of Desire 
Habits form by two countervailing mechanisms. On the one hand, we are used to a stimulus, so our response to that stimulus decreases – you need to do it more to get the same level of response. And on the other hand, we are sensitized to anything that reminds us of that experience, so minor aspects of our day can serve as reminders to participate further in the activity.  
In this way, a normally stressful experience can become less stressful. For example, when training martial arts, athletes simulate real fights in a controlled environment. The brain isn’t exactly thrilled for the body to be punched or choked, even with safe sparring partners. Beginners often are often overcome anxiety from the adrenaline coursing through their bodies during their first experiences sparring, but over time, the stress turns into fun. Likewise, because martial arts are full body workouts, they train movements that fighters might use in their day-to-day lives. Or experience training can bring a deeper appreciation of a well-choregraphed fight scene in a movie. Small doses of enjoyment encourage future full experiences, and after repeated exposure, joy outweighs any residual stress. 
Technology habits function in the same way. We are sensitized to reminders to use technological products through notifications and encouragement to like and follow businesses’ social media pages – even companies’ logos act as little prods to get users back on the service. And despite the stress, users acclimate to what begins to feel like a new normal. You probably experienced this psychological mechanism during the pandemic as the stress of COVID-19 just became part of the air we breathe. 
In specifically technological environments, earlier research has observed that users become desensitized to warnings messages on their screens, eventually disregarding the alerts. Users also start to ignore advertisements through repeated exposure.  
As users habituate to an activity, there is a transition from merely liking the activity to wanting it. At first glance, it might not seem like there’s not a strong distinction between the two, but the distinction is key. It is the difference between being pleasantly surprised by an opportunity to participate in an activity and actively seeking its pleasures out. Steelman, Soror, and Turel have all previously worked on research to explain how a user can easily slip from desire to dependency and make irrational decisions about continued use even when the activity in question is actively harmful to their life. 
The point of Steelman, Soror, and Turel’s work is not to undermine the value of habits – rather, it explores “the dark side,” as they call it, of technology use habits. They say habits are important mechanisms by which we can reduce the cognitive load of our tasks as well as our stress in certain circumstances, and they hope that their research can help establish training programs to foster beneficial habits.  
The researchers found that negative effects of technology use correlated with lower intentions to continue use, whereas dependency correlated with higher intentions of continued use. They say these results are intuitive. However, they noticed that participants in their study seemed to hold both ideas in their heads at the same time.  
Moreover, they found that users with dependency tended to be biased towards favoring continued use. That is, users gave more weight to the positive outcomes of technology use over any negative experiences. Steelman, Soror, and Turel say this cognitive bias is more pronounced when the behavior is socially expected, such as when using social media.  
The research also suggests there is a link between habit, stress, and dependency. Technology habits tended to create dependency on technology, and users who were dependent tended to experience an increased feeling of exhaustion, or burnout. Of course, as noted above, habit formation desensitizes users to their response to stress, so the ensuing technostress establishes itself as normal even when it is objectively creating more negative outcomes than positive ones.  
Practically, the researchers argue that while service providers ought to cultivate some habit formation in their users, they should be aware of the drawbacks of instilling any excessive psychological dependency. Once habit switches to dependency, they believe most of the positive effects of habit are outweighed by the negative impacts of dependency.  
Likewise, they suggest that service providers, employers, and other stakeholders should intervene before habituation becomes dependency because the increase in stress and burnout leaves users with fewer resources for other tasks. Steelman, Soror, and Turel say that increasing the levels of exhaustion users feel might be one remedy. Even as technology promises better worker wellbeing, its constant barrage of notifications gives workers perverse incentives to be present but not productive. And when workers reach for software solution reflexively rather than with clear intentions, they make the work harder to accomplish. By making the service a little more uncomfortable to use, providers can potentially step in the way of excessive use. Besides, research shows that happy workers are productive workers
Service providers could, for example, require users to access some features only through a desktop or laptop rather than through users’ smartphones, or users might always be prompted for two-factor authentication to log into their accounts, thereby slowing the process of access and beefing up security. Again, the researchers do not argue against habit formation but rather to keep habits from becoming problematic. Put another way, having a habit of speeding a little on an interstate highway is one thing, but it’s another to feel compelled to speed through a neighborhood with pedestrians and playing children.  
As these services cease to be only entertainment and offer more and more utilitarian services, striking a balance between good habits and dependency is crucial for the wellbeing of users. Managers should certainly think hard about what kind of workplace they want to foster, if their employees really have to be online all the time, and whether their technological tools are enabling the environment they want or encouraging bad behavior.  
For the rest of us, remember that these products are built to be habit forming, even dependency inducing among the less scrupulous. So, if you catch yourself reactively reaching for your phone or stressing out over innocuous email alerts, have a little empathy for yourself. Note and move on.  

Zach SteelmanZach Steelman is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the Walton College. He holds Ph.D. and M.I.S. degrees from the University of Arkansas, a B.B.A. in information systems from Northeastern State University and an A.A. from Carl Albert State College.

Mitchell SimpsonMitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn't buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.