New research shows that apps can help combat screen addictions

Jonathan Shieber

Any human advancement has been fraught with the opportunity for misuse and abuse, and the internet, with its avenues for diversion and entertainment, is no different.

In recent years, psychologists and society at large has begun wrestling with the problems of screen addiction and its corollaries in online pornography addiction, gambling addiction, and gaming addiction more broadly.

And just as mobile technology and the apps that have been built for the new communication platform have created these problems with its omnipresence, a few technology companies are also looking to leverage that same omnipresence and messaging functionality to solve them.

That's what's behind new research from the Founders Fund-backed startup Onward, which proves that its approach (and by extension potentially the approach taken by other startups in the industry) can positively affect user behavior.

Onward launched as a tool to combat screen addiction and is now expanding to include programs for treating online gambling addiction and pornography addiction.

According to the research studies that Onward conducted for the past year, with 1400 self-identified pornography addicts and 2,500 screen over-users showed some interesting results.

Roughly 89% of Onward's users reduced their screen time and the amount of time they spent watching pornography and 51% of those surveyed stopped watching porn entirely. Meanwhile, screen time users saw a reduction in their social media usage that equated to 75 fewer hours spent online per year.

The company's app was also able to stop 62% of attempts by users to cross the limits they'd set for themselves.

For Onward co-founder and chief executive, Gabe Zicherman, the company's work is an extension of his previous efforts trying to make technology more addictive through gamification.

"I know things have gone too far," Zicherman said in a statement about technology companies' ability to influence their users.

Onward chief executive, Gabe Zicherman

"Onward's singular mission is to cure complex behavioral health issues such as addiction," he said.

The company's automated ability to track usage and block unwanted apps is coupled with a set of clinically-validated actions and behavioral training designed to reduce the urge to overuse devices and access psychologically damaging content or sites for people who are recovering.

As a testament to the promise of the company's technology, it's managed to sign up the world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman to its clinical advisory board.

Eagleman's work has been focused in part on what he calls the Ulysses Contract. He explains it in this segment of the Public Broadcasting Service's teaser for his series "The Brain".

Onward uses a variety of tools that can function as different kinds of Ulysses contracts including social connection and accountability.

Onward not only passively tracks a users' behavior on their phone, but it also generates reports on that behavior so people can identify the things they'd like to change.

The company's tracking and reporting is free, and its Onward Pro is available for as little as $4.99/month.

The company is backed with $3.2 million in financing from investors including Founders Fund, Compound Ventures, and Gaingels.

Based in Los Angeles, the company counts Dr. Timothy W. Fong and Dr. Richard J. Rosenthal from the UCLA School of Health, and Dr. Christina Brezing of Columbia University Medical Center among its advisors (in addition to Eagleman).

“Addressing addiction is one of the most challenging missions in neuroscience, and one of the most important,” said Dr. Eagleman. “I’m pleased to join the Onward Clinical Advisory Board and contribute to solving this health crisis via the marriage of behavioral science and high technology.”

Los Angeles-based Onward isn't the only company that's battling addiction using mobile devices and cognitive behavioral therapies. Companies like Pelorus Health and Recovery Record are both using mobile devices to provide cognitive behavioral therapy tools and access to skills to combat addictive behavior.