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Massive study finds smartphones really are addicting. But skeptics remain cautious

Life is about balance. Too much sugar and you get a stomach ache. Too much alcohol and you get a whopping hangover (or worse). Too much time on your phone and all of sudden the day has turned to night because you accidentally watched four hours of pet videos.

Are we addicted to our phones and are they bad for us? It’s a question that many people have asked, but the answers aren’t simple or consistent. Some studies say screen time is bad for your mental health and sleep patterns. Other research says they’re good because they stimulate the brain. Until now, it’s been hard to draw concrete conclusions.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conducted the first formal study focused on digital addiction. It explored people’s ability to maintain and reduce screen time usage in order to determine if technology is indeed habit forming. The research is part of the NBER Working Paper Series, meaning it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and was conducted by Hunt Allcott, Matthew Gentzkow, and Lena Song, who come from Microsoft, Stanford University, and New York University, respectively.

People have long speculated that the internet is addictive, and this study seems to confirm those fears. “Our data is consistent with social media having characteristics of addictive goods. They’re habit forming and we find ourselves using them more than we’d like to,” Allcott said. “That suggests that we would be better off if there was a better way to control our use.”

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