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Researchers study 24 hours without cellphone push notifications

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, 11:45 a.m.
A pair of researchers studied people's reaction to disabling push notifications for 24 hours.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
A pair of researchers studied people's reaction to disabling push notifications for 24 hours.

Twenty-four hours free from push notifications was all it took for people to rethink the buzzes and beeps on their cellphones.

That's according to a recently published study by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Telefonica , a Spanish telecommunications giant.

The researchers asked 30 participants to disable push notifications on their phones for 24 hours in what they called the "Do Not Disturb Challenge." The result — aside from mixed feelings of reduced stress and increased anxiety — was that even two years after the study, 13 of the original participants had dialed back their push notifications.

"Our findings show that cultural practices around notifications have locked people in a dilemma: On the one hand, notifications have become integral to the tools that connect us with others, and they are needed to keep up with people's expectations. On the other hand, our participants became aware of the negative effects that notifications have on them and some started to devise coping strategies," wrote Luz Rello from CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Martin Pielot from Telefonica Research.

Rello and Pielot wrote they initially wanted people to turn off push notifications — the buzzes, beeps and banners that assault your cellphone with everything from breaking news alerts to messages from friends to reminders to log what you ate for lunch — for a week but had to scale it back to a day to get enough volunteers.

Rello and Pielot cited a previous study in their report which found people on average receive about 63.5 notifications per day.

All 30 of Rello and Pielot's participants completed the "Do Not Disturb Challenge" but shared mixed feelings about it. Some felt stressed. Some felt relaxed. Some felt productive and some felt distracted. People reported missing personal and professional information that was important to them because notifications were turned off and that they frequently checked their phone to see what they were missing.

One person left his or her phone at work by accident because it wasn't constantly beeping or buzzing.

"The Do Not Disturb Challenge revealed strong and polarized reactions to the absence of notifications. For some participants, being without notifications was a positive experience: being more relaxed, less stressed and more productive at work. For others, fear of missing out and violating others' expectations turned it into a negative experience," the pair of researchers wrote.

Despite the mixed bag of reactions, many of the participants decided to keep notifications turned off or employ their phone's version of a "Do Not Disturb" mode after the study. Immediately after the day without notifications, 22 of the 30 participants told the researchers they planned to tone down the amount of notifications they receive. Two years later, in April of this year, Rello and Pielot checked in with those 22 people and found 13 had followed through.

Rello and Pielot aren't the only ones challenging people to think about notifications on their phones. As Quartz, a website owned by Atlantic Media, noted in its reporting on the study , comedian and writer Aziz Ansari recently took the spirit of the "Do Not Disturb Challenge" a step further.

Ansari was asked about his cellphone blackout in a recent interview in GQ .


GQ: I heard you deleted the Internet from your phone. And that you deleted Twitter and Instagram and email. No way that's true, right?

Ansari: It is! Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there's a new thing, it's not even about the content. It's just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You're not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don't care anymore. When I first took the browser off my phone, I'm like, (gasp) How am I gonna look stuff up? But most of the s--- you look up, it's not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you're in a cab, you don't need to look at any of that stuff. It's better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there's a new thing. And read a book instead. I've been doing it for a couple months, and it's worked. I'm reading, like, three books right now. I'm putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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