The psychology of poverty and life online: natural experiments on the effects of smartphone payday loan ads on psychological stress

Jihye Lee, James T. Hamilton, Nilam Ram, Katherine Roehrick, Byron Reeves

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This study examines how individuals across income classes encountered payday lenders’ appeals online and what their smartphone use reveals about their psychological reactions to these messages. We utilized novel Screenomics data, comprehensive sequences of screenshots (N = 13,498,584) collected every 5 seconds from the smartphones of lower-income and higher-income adults (N = 65) in U.S. metropolitan areas for 2 months. While examining a person’s everyday smartphone use, we observed 103 natural exposures to advertisements of payday lenders who had in the past generated consumer complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We describe how individuals encountered payday loan ads through various digital channels despite the ad bans of major technology companies. We employed a quasi-experimental design to test for differences in participant actions immediately before and after ad exposure. Multilevel analysis results show that exposure to payday loan ads led to notable changes in the lower-income individuals’ smartphone use. Directly after seeing the ads, the lower-income individuals engaged with content that contained fewer future-oriented words, switched between applications more frequently, and avoided content that evoked negative emotions. Such effects were especially pronounced among the lower-income individuals who lacked the support of social safety nets, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and unemployment benefits. In contrast, there were no changes noted in smartphone use among the lower-income individuals receiving social safety net assistance and higher-income individuals. These findings highlight the nuanced yet impactful psychological consequences of digital experiences, an underexplored aspect of digital inequalities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2775-2796
Number of pages22
JournalInformation Communication and Society
Issue number14
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Library and Information Sciences


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