The app addiction

Phones are not made to be addictive. The gambling machines we happily install on them are. They employ simple psychological tricks to get you in, maximize your time spent and ensure that you return.

We were enjoying a lovely summer night, sitting on the seashores, talking and drinking beer. Moments passed just by us admiring the beautiful scenery. Then–a sound–my friend’s phone. An email was waiting for him on the lock screen. An email with bad news–work related. His mood shifted, he was out of the moment. It’s not like he could have done something about it right now. But still, someone, miles away, took his moment.

Push notifications get delivered to our lock screens instantaneously. For the app, it doesn’t matter where you are, how you are and whom you’re with. They hold the means to infringe on our private time whenever they see fit. Even when we don’t make the conscious choice to check our notifications, they are there. Often reframing the reason why we looked at our phone in the first place. Just checking the time becomes a 15 minute Instagram feed binge because someone on the other side of the world liked our post.

Apps flood our lock screens carelessly. At any time we can receive work-related messages that ruin our day, more breaking news about trump that make us angry or a new tinder match that makes us launch the app full of excitement. All of it poised to take us out of the moment and into the app. We don’t notice anymore that each message comes with its toll. Most of it is unfiltered information that we don’t need to know right now but is aimed to catch us.

And this is no accident, it’s by design. Apps fight for our attention, when was the last time you opened an app and it didn’t ask you for permission to send you push notifications? Even apps that have zero human interaction flood up our lock screens with meaningless messages.

This is not just a vague observation, it actually shows. The average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day. Even at night: A US study found that 53% of millennials wake up at least once at night to check their phones.

The flood of notifications is succeeding in its purpose, to get us in. To get us to spend more time on our phones. This in itself is quite ironic, since push notifications were originally designed by BlackBerry to make us spend less time on our screens, informing us about new emails on our lock screens so we won’t have to launch the app.

There is an easy psychological explanation to why these notifications are so effective. Each notification that arrives on our screen is, in its essence, just a trigger—a trigger for our dopamine system. Humans seek dopamine, it’s responsible for our longings and reward/pleasure systems. It was long believed that dopamine is caused by real pleasure, but more recent studies suggest that dopamine is actually more closely linked to anticipatory pleasure. And according to Psychologytoday:

“The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound when a text message or email arrives, or a visual cue, that enhances the addictive effect.”

“Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but you don’t know exactly when they will, or who they will be from. It’s unpredictable. This is exactly what stimulates the dopamine system.”

This behavior is abused by apps, in an interview with the guardian, app developer Nick Kuh reports:

“A lot of these companies are employing behavioural psychologists to really nail that: finding ways to draw you back in. I’ve worked on apps like that myself, and it’s not something I’m proud of.”

But apps not only limit themselves to push notifications, the same principle can be applied to many mechanics inside the app. Take for example the pull-to-refresh mechanism.

Twitter's pull to refresh
Twitter's pull to refresh (from ui-patterns.com).

Swiping down is like pulling the handle of a slot machine, the playful loading animation is the cue, something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. A new tweet? a new Email? Who is it from? What will it be? The question is not so much anymore if this will be useful to me right now, the goal is only to get a quick dopamine rush. Your dopamine system gets hooked on the cues, it makes you crave, then you take action. You pull out your phone to check your notifications, you pull to refresh to see if there are new tweets, you swipe right or left on tinder. The app rewards you for your action, making you seek even more.

And just like playing with real slot machines, classical symptoms of addiction show. The MIT Sloan Management Review publication published an interesting experiment, two professors made giving up their smartphones for one day a requirement for their students. They concluded:

“For young adults accustomed to continually checking their cellphones, even a single day without access to them can be anxiety-producing.”

A study conducted back in 2015 by the name of “The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology” comes to a similar conclusion. Participants conducted word search puzzles, in which they performed worse whilst separated from their phones.

Studies like that aren’t new, in 2013, The UK Post Office coined the term Nomophobie, “No-Mobile-Phone-Phobia,” which describes the anxiety arising from separation from one’s mobile phone.

Keeping you in

"Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behavior." Center of Humane Technology

While perfectly timed and worded, notifications are important to draw us into the app, but the tactics to keep us there are even more mischievous. While many apps employ different tactics, the ones which really mastered this discipline are social apps. Coincidentally these are the ones we spend the most time with. They are in a perfect position, they can design their addictive mechanisms around a basic human need: the need for social interaction.

In her book, “The Happiness Effect,” Donna Freitas speaks about the pressure to always look perfect online. She asked several students, and they agreed that they take obsessive care to display themselves in the most favorable way possible. Unable to maintain this illusion, social networks become more and more the source of anxiety and obsessive self-doubt for many of the questioned students. Even more interesting though, they not only talk about the portrayed self-image but also about the felt need to perpetually work on improving it. Whenever a great moment is experienced, an urge arises to share this moment with their personal audience.

In their study #StatusOfMind, The Royal Society of Public Health researched the correlation between social media and young people’s mental health. One of their key findings was the so-called “Fear of Missing Out”:

“FoMO is characterised by the need to be constantly connected with what other people are doing, so as not to miss out.”

Instead of designing their platforms to tackle this issue, social networks like facebook reinforce this addictive behavior. Notifications like “See new posts,” “Don’t miss out on,” “You have X notifications” will start pouring in as soon as you haven’t been as active on the site as they would like you to. Facebook would even go as far as lying about account security-related issues to get you to log back in.

Or take Snapchat’s Snapstreaks feature, a Snapstreak is a chat between two people who message each other every day. Once there is a day of no interaction, the streak goes away. This puts a number on your social interaction and is a perverse but admittedly genius tactic to keep people hooked. Snapchat goes even further in quantifying and gamifying your life:

“Best Friends are the friends you stay in touch with the most […] You can have up to eight Best Friends […] Best Friends are updated regularly,” reads the official documentation.

(Coincidentally, Snapchat along Instagram, is rated the worst social network for mental health.)

While social networks have historically been the most hungry for user attention, as well as the most successful in obtaining it, psychological abuse has not been limited to these apps. Games have become a worthy contender. One could argue that they are even worse since they not only compete on time spent in their app but also on money spent on in-app purchases. They become increasingly clever on how to lure you into hitting that purchase button. Mike Rose, in his article “Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games,” writes:

“It becomes more akin to gambling, as social gamers know that they are spending money as they play with little or no financial return.”

“The one question I am constantly asked is why people pay real money for virtual items in games like FarmVille. As someone who has studied slot machine players for over 25 years, the similarities are striking.”

Indeed, behavioral psychology has long been applied successfully in these games. Ramin Shokrizade gives a nice but shocking summarization in his article “The Top F2P Monetization Tricks.” As you might have guessed, these tactics are all about ripping you off.

The new harry potter mobile game tries to lure you into your first in-app purchase by perfect timing. It coincides perfectly with the first precarious situation you get into. Buy your way out or leave your character hanging for hours.
The new harry potter mobile game tries to lure you into your first in-app purchase by perfectly timing the first purchase screen. It coincides perfectly with the first precarious situation you get into. Buy your way out or leave your character hanging for hours. (from usgamer.net).

We could go on and on and list app after app. Netflix uses autoplay, a ticking clock that you watch mesmerized and that leads the way to hours of uninterrupted binge-watching, The two dots app regularly changes its colorful icon to attract your attention, and even apps like Spotify are not exempt. Jonathan Kay, from the app analytics company Apptopia told Bussines Insider: “My likelihood of continuing my [Spotify] subscription depends on how much time I spend in the app.” “So every day I log into Spotify, it aggregates my music in a different way, like a time capsule.”

The sad reality is, companies have to do this, it’s in their best interest. The more time you spend in their ecosystem the more interesting they get for marketers, the more likely you are to renew your subscription, the more likely you are to hit that purchase button. You spending a second less in their app has a real effect on their business, their revenue, their stock. So they point all their brilliant engineers towards this task. Wasting your time is their core business.

Side effects

"If technology is a drug—and it does feel like a drug—then what, precisely, are the side-effects?" Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror

Our time is precious for sure, however, all these tactics not only lead us to waste our time staring at screens, no, the real problems are the side effects. While we all know the repercussions of a night spent binging a Netflix series or stalking our ex on Facebook there are more severe long-term effects. Something that for many people goes beyond just wasting minutes of their life’s time. It’s just really hard to put a finger on it. Psychologists describe the phenomenon of the affective forecast error: Affective forecasting is the process of predicting one’s emotional state in the future, and apparently, we are horrible at it. If a forecast error is made, one would make decisions that are seemingly of benefit, when in reality are quite harmful.

A study by Sagioglou and Greitemeyer conclude that Facebook affects the mood negatively but also finds that users still continue using it. They conclude that people commit a classic forecasting error.

In an article for Forbes, discussing phone addiction and its mental health risks, author Alice G. Walton concludes:

“Part of the problem with “using” is that we think social media will give us a boost, but it doesn’t—it makes us feel worse. This is a “forecast error” that keeps us coming back, even though it often has a negative effect on our mental health. And this cycle sounds eerily like a classic addiction.”

There are studies that link the use of social media platforms to symptoms of depression and anxiety, to poor sleep quality and low self-esteem and countless more. But the reality can be even more severe. A study explored the rise of depression and suicide and how it correlates with increased screen time: “Since 2010, iGen adolescents [ages 13 to 18] have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide. In contrast, cyclical economic factors such as unemployment and the Dow Jones Index were not linked to depressive symptoms or suicide rates when matched by year,” says the study.

A big part of the problem is that we’re all relatively new to this. Millennia’s are the first generation to grow up as “digital natives,” while the positives are easy to decern already, it usually takes awhile for the negatives to show. (Remember the time doctors told us smoking was healthy? Well, I don’t, but maybe you do.)

However, it seems that self-awareness is rising, Deloitte asked 4,150 16-75 year old UK citizens: And found that “Two-fifths (38%) of respondents believe that they are using their phone too much.”

Even the inventors of the technology itself are starting to worry. Loren Brichter, the designer who created the pull-to-refresh mechanism, told the Guardian:

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

Greg Christie, who then, as head of Apple’s human interface team, participated in the creation of the original iPhone addressed a Q&A question at a talk at design studio IDEO:

“In terms of whether it’s [the success of the smartphone] net positive or net negative, I don’t think we know yet.”

“People both individually and collectively as a society have to learn how to adjust to the new media reality that they find themselves in. Technology changes faster than people.”

Jason Hreha, a researcher at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, formulates this a bit more aggressively:

“As members of the tech industry, we need to ask serious questions about the behaviors that we are promoting. Are we really helping people live better lives? Or, are we promoting suboptimal habits and aptitudes? At best, many of the products we’re building are time wasters. At worst, they’re the addictive equivalents of cigarettes — irresistible cheap thrills that feel good in the moment, but are destructive in the long run,” he writes.

Proposing a new form of diet

“You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. We’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.” Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

However dark this article may sound, I’m not proposing to unplug all your devices, delete all your social network accounts and live a happy life in the forests. The solution, for now, is hopefully more subtle. (However, feel free to do so.)

While we’ve long understood the importance of a selective, nutrient-rich, and healthy diet we’ve seen that we take dangerously less care when it comes to our digital intake. We need to start applying the same care to our media consumption. We need to take meticulous care of how and why we spend time on our phones.

And as with any diet we need to question the impact of every calorie we take in.

  • Why did I launch the app?
  • How much time did I spend there?
  • How did I feel afterward?
  • Did I gain any value? / Do I feel entertained?
  • How often do I launch the app during the day?

After we become aware of our usage, and how it affects us, we can take some simple steps to improve.

Push back your push notifications

It’s clear that we need to address these endless disturbances first. Turn them off. While this sounds relatively easy it actually is not. Modern phones are psychotically bad equipped to selectively suppress information. You will need to go through your settings and turn them off one by one. Turn all of them off. After a week you can make a more selective choice on what to turn on again. Take away the subconscious cues. Take designated times aside each day to answer emails and messages. Access your apps consciously by pressing the app icon.

Out of sight out of mind

Speaking of app icons, it’s time for a declutter. Your first screen should only contain apps that contribute to your everyday life in a positive way. Want to spend less time in an app? Move them to the last screen, preferably into a folder. What apps do you need daily and contribute to your life? What apps are just there for you to launch if you can’t think of anything better to do right now? For me, amongst other things, this meant replacing Instagram with Duolingo and move Twitter off my precious first screen.

Fight apps with apps

Apps like Mute, Moment and Hold (and many more) can help track the time we spend on our phones and in each individual app. The most useful feature of these apps, however, is the time limits that can be set both for screen time in total and individual apps. They can then help you (ironically by sending you push-notifications) to not exceed your set limits.

Be a frequent flyer

Sometimes the most radical solutions are the best. Whenever you don’t want to be disturbed put your phone into flight mode. If you’re of the anxious type, you can configure do not disturb mode to let certain calls get through anyway. Use this at night, in meetings, on dates or at work.

Ethics in design

"In the future, we will look back at today as a turning point towards humane design: when we moved away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society." Tristan Harris' Center for Humane Technology

While we can take all these steps and, to some extent, improve our relationship with our phones, in the future, this will no longer be a fight we can win by discipline alone.

With the competition between media companies becoming more severe, and technology becoming increasingly smarter, we can only assume that this problem will become worse. And while we can still fight back by being more disciplined, a younger generation might be less sensible. According to a report by Common Sense Media, teenagers between the age of 13 and 18 already spend a ridiculous 9 hours a day on screen media.

No, in the future, we need apps to take more responsibility.

Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, coined the term “Humane Design”: design with ethics in mind. And it sets out to come to our rescue. Instead of optimizing for clicks, likes, sales and screen time, this design principle revolves around the goal to make us spend less time in our apps. Apps should augment our reality, not replace it. Help us find quickly what we need, and then let us get back to our lives.

This proposal is a completely different and new approach. While this sounds promising, we will have a tough fight ahead of us. Because, as it is now, the strive for clicks and attention is also the strive for profit—from which no company can resign.

Follow Humane design’s call for action.