More than 665 million people use Facebook every day, and the average user spends nearly seven hours per month on the site. For many, Facebook can hover between daily habit and time-consuming addiction.
When two MIT doctoral students realized their own Facebook habit bordered on compulsion, they developed a way to heavily moderate their usage. The result: the Pavlov Poke, an aversion therapy device that limits Facebook usage via (mild) electric shock.
Created by Media Lab students Robert R. Morris and Dan McDuff, the Poke (named after conditioning researcher Ivan Pavlov) is a keyboard accessory that, when connected to a computer via USB, can monitor online usage. Users set parameters, including time spent and time visited on a specified website. When those limits are exceeded, a quick jolt—“unpleasant, but not dangerous”—is delivered via a custom keyboard rest pad.
According to Morris, the Poke was built with unused materials found in and around the Media Lab. Morris also admits that, while more in-depth scientific research is needed, he did notice a reduction in his own Facebook usage.
“I did notice a significant, though temporary, reduction in my Facebook usage. Prior to using ‘Pavlov Poke,’ my Facebook habits were so ingrained that I would often find myself visiting the site and logging in well before I noticed any conscious intention to do so. After a few shock exposures, these automatic behaviors seemed completely rewired. I no longer visited the site unless I wanted to.”
The researchers have no intention of commercializing the Pavlov Poke but believe it has important research implications. Digital technology addiction is real and consumers should be aware on how much time they devote to visiting social network sites.
“All too often, people assume they use a given technology because they want to and because it is in their best self-interest…Sites like Facebook are crafted on the basis of something called engagement metrics, which measure the number of daily active users and the time people spend on the site. Unfortunately, these metrics are not designed to assess well-being.”
Morris and McDuff’s Facebook-reduction strategy is not solely limited to electrotherapy. The researchers designed another system that delivers something even more annoying than an electric shock: a prank phone call. When Facebook usage parameters are exceeded, a code built by the researchers automatically hires crowdworkers to call and lambaste a user for their internet overindulgence.
On the other hand, if you’re a devout Facebooker and you’d like to be rewarded for your virtual interactions, Media Lab researchers have developed a device for that, too.