Interrupting Interruptions: A Digital Experiment on Social Media and Performance
Interruptions have complex effects on individual productivity. They can alleviate fatigue and distress, but also interfere with a person's focus and attention. In recent years, a number of strategies have been adopted by organizations and individuals to curtail the potential negative effects of encroaching digital interruptions. We investigate how the use of such strategies (specifically, a digital app that curtails certain digital interruptions) affects individuals' performance in a randomized field experiment. We leverage the economic incentives of online workers on a crowd-sourcing platform, capturing their performance across a variety of tasks. We measure the impact of two alternative treatments relative to a control group: i) an exogenous treatment, in which the app is instrumented to block access for fixed periods of time to selected online services (some popular social media sites); ii) an endogenous treatment, in which participants determine whether to and to what extent use the app to block access to online services. In the exogenous condition, curtailing access to certain online services significantly increased individuals' performance: participants completed about 35% more tasks (per hour), resulting in an increase in earnings per hour of about 26%. We find evidence of heterogeneous effects of the treatment: the performance improvement due to the app is lower for heavy social media users; those same participants were more likely to experience an increase in feelings of frustrations and technological anxiety during the study, associated with the imposed blockage of social media sites. In the endogenous condition, only about 36% of participants used the app for a meaningful amount of time. As such, while, on average, that group did not experience a significant change in performance, we find evidence of a positive effect on participants who did use the app, increasing in the number of minutes of app usage.