Are You Prone to be Bored? Your Phone Can Tell

This work is a follow-up project on our research on When Attention is not Scarce – Detecting Boredom from Mobile Phone Usage

People using their mobile phone in the metro to kill time.
People using their mobile phone in the metro to kill time.

We might think that technology has solved the problem of boredom. More and more devices provide us with an ample source of entertainment at our fingertips.

Paradoxically, today we appear to be more prone to boredom than ever before. The explanation might be that over time people habituate to an increasing exposure to stimuli such that, when the level of stimulation drops, they become bored.

In an extension on our study of detecting phases of boredom from mobile phone usage, in this study, we (Aleksandar Matic, Nuria Oliver, and me of the Scientific Group of Telefonica) explored to what extent technology use is intertwined with boredom proneness, and whether the level of boredom proneness can be inferred from it. We collected data on the accumulated daily mobile phone usage patterns of 22 volunteers, such as, the average number of apps started in a day or the variance of the amount of notifications received per day. Then, those participants filled our the standardized Boredom Proneness Scale.

We found that daily usage patterns can estimate whether the person is above-average prone to boredom with an accuracy of over 80%. Individuals with high boredom proneness were having more unstable daily phone usage patterns: they launched a higher number of apps per day, had strong peaks of social network activity, and turned on the phone a lot. However, surprisingly, the overall time of using the phone was not higher than for individuals with lower boredom proneness.

Boredom proneness is related to a number of negative outcomes, such as depression, drug & alcohol consumption, or anxiety. Obtaining boredom proneness in an unobtrusive, automatic way can, amongst other things, help in the adjustment of the treatments of such health issues.

The work was presented in September 2015 at the ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, which took place in Osaka, Japan.

The details of the work are described in
Boredom-Computer Interaction: Boredom Proneness and The Use of Smartphone
Aleksandar Matic, Martin Pielot, Nuria Oliver
UbiComp’ 15: ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing, 2015.

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Correlations and Causation

Why Using Your Phone Less Won’t Necessarily Make You Healthier

There is evidence that resisting the pull of your device can lead to healthier living.”

This is the conclusion of the article Trying to Live in the Moment (and Not on the Phone) from citing “a recent study by researchers at Kent State University found that students who were heavy cellphone users tended to report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life than their peers who used their phones less often. 

Does this mean you should throw your mobile phone out of the window right now to live a healthier life??

The answer is no.

What we are reading in this except from the article is a classic misinterpretation of causation and correlation.

Let’s assume the findings are universally true and students who use their cellphone a lot report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life, then there are three possible explanations:

  1. As the article concludes, the use of cellphones indeed increases anxiety and dissatisfaction. In this case, use of cellphone is the cause and anxiety and dissatisfaction the effects.
  2. However, it could as well be true that cause and effect are reversed: anxiety and dissatisfaction turn people into heavy cellphone users.
  3. Finally, there is the possibility of a tertium quid, an unknown third factor that causes both. For example, people who find it more difficult to interact with others directly may prefer to use the phone, and at the same time be more anxious and dissatisfied with life.

Thus, using the phone less may not make anxiety and dissatisfaction disappear.

 

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