The week of January 31, 2016
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Why your favorite apps are designed to addict you

By Nithin Coca

When marketers decide how to spend their advertising money online, a few stats are crucial. First, usage time—how much time a user spends on an app, and second, frequency of use—how often users check said network or app.

Facebook regularly mentions both in its quarterly financial presentations and is clearly winning, with Americans using the network an average of more than 40 minutes a day. We’re spending more and more time on apps—to the delight of advertisers and developers but, potentially, to the detriment of our mental health.

“It’s definitely addicting when you have this thing in your pocket, attached to your hip, that’s buzzing all the time,” said Devon Ryan, IEEE Young Professionals representative and co-founder of Lion Mobile. “It’s opening the door for apps to get more involved in people’s lives—and companies do exploit that.”

And herein lies the problem. If usage and frequency are the most important stats, then it stands to reason that the more often someone uses an app, the better it is for developers. With millions of apps out there competing for limited user time, they are being designed—through push notifications, reengagement tools, and, increasingly, machine learning—to intentionally boost usage numbers. Clearly, apps are designed to be addicting. And user behavior shows that we’re not always checking our apps with good reason.

“We nibble a little at one tree—maybe Facebook—then jump to another tree—maybe Instagram, not really knowing if there’s something good there, [but] compelled by some reason we don’t fully understand,” said Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and an expert on the psychology of technology.

In fact, addiction is built into the mindset of app development. And it’s not even subtle. A simple Google search finds dozens of articles on sites like the Next Web and Fast Company, with titles like “How to Check If Your App Is Addictive Enough to Make Money” and “Secrets to Building a Totally Addictive App (Without That Guilty Feeling).” In the modern tech mindset, addictive apps generate the most revenue. “Most of the largest players are generating significant [revenue] from advertising,” said Raefer Gabriel, CEO of Delvv and a data scientist focused on app use and behavior. “The ad model has resulted in the creation of habit-forming apps.”

The most common addicting tool is push notifications—what makes the phone buzz in your pocket. App developers use push notifications to get users to reengage with apps, in an effort to get them to become regular users. Machine learning, A/B testing, and automation are parts of the arsenal in this increasingly sophisticated process.

“The dynamic nature of social media feeds creates the illusion of constantly updating information through machine learning,” said Gabriel.

Research is starting to show that we’re not using apps to feel good—we’re trying to get rid of neurotransmitters that make us feel bad.

Addiction may not even be the right term, at least psychologically. According to Rosen, the reason we check our phones constantly is not to gain pleasure—the telltale sign of true addictive behavior—but something else potentially even more worrisome for our well-being.

“There really are two processes going on here,” said Rosen. “Part of it is an addiction… but what I think what’s really going on, and what our research is starting to show, is that we’re not trying to feel good—we are trying to get rid of neurotransmitters that make us feel bad, chemicals most closely associated with feelings of anxiety and stress.”

Rosen points to evidence in his studies that shows that half the time people check their phones, they actually don’t even have a notification. This obsessive behavior, he theorizes, may be the source of now-common ailments like “phantom vibration syndrome” (when you imagine your phone ringing or buzzing).

“We’re finding that anxiety is probably the best predictor of behavior,” said Rosen. For example, his team found that where people put their phone before they go to bed is connected to anxiety levels.

The truth is we know a lot less about what technology is doing to our brains than we would like. One of the major challenges for researchers is that technology has rapidly evolved in the past several years—remember, the iPhone debuted in 2007—and apps today barely resemble those of just a few years ago. The end result is that we’re headed into uncharted territory. Humans are using an immense amount of technology without truly understanding its potential impacts.

“We’re doing, essentially, really large-scale experiments with our brains,” said Gabriel. “Is it good or bad ultimately for people’s mental and physical well-being to have a watch on your wrist that vibrates anytime you have an email? I’m not sure. I certainly think there is more research merited.”

Sleep deprivation and mood and anxiety disorders are all potentially influenced by how we use technology.

“We don’t appear to be making conscious choices anymore,” Rosen said. “A ream of research is coming out showing that this is negatively impacting our health.” Sleep deprivation and mood and anxiety disorders are all potentially influenced by how we use technology. But without further research, we may not know the true impact of the mobile revolution on our health until it’s too late.

This can’t keep going on forever, right? A few years ago, public uproar about privacy forced companies like Google and Facebook to make privacy settings both easier to find and easier to change. Similarly, Ryan believes that consumer demand will eventually force developers to switch tactics with respect to addictive design. “The industry is evolving, and the standards of consumers will skyrocket. … Users will gain control over push notifications, how many emails they get,” he said.

In fact, there is now a whole wealth of tools that allow users to better manage push notifications and usage of their time on social networks like Facebook and Instagram. At the same time, the number of chat apps and addicting games increases daily, along with the amount of machine learning employed on your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds based on what gets you to keep scrolling and engaging. We’ve yet to hit peak mobile, and according to data from Pew Research, there is still no discernable decrease in the amount of time that Americans are spending on their devices.

Moreover, the rules of the game have not yet changed. Usage equals revenue. Falling engagement and the inability to attract new users have been key reasons that Twitter’s stock price has fallen over the past year. If Facebook users begin using the app less because it is designed in a way that allows them to see friend updates more quickly, you can bet that Facebook won’t be highlighting that in its earnings calls.

Consumer demand is just one piece of the puzzle. Addiction isn’t as clearly defined as privacy because it impacts every user differently and because it’s built into the app development process. That’s why Gabriel believes the heart of the problem is in the mentality that dominates what he calls Silicon Valley thinking.

“Certain developers could take cues from the gaming or gambling industry,” Gabriel said. “You often see those ads when you walk into a casino: ‘If you have a problem, maybe you should look for help.’ There are certainly plenty of ways that app developers could differentiate users who are just using their app frequently and people who are engaging in behaviors that might be self-destructive.”

Until then, enjoy being part of the biggest psychological experiment in human history. The next time your phone buzzes, know that somewhere, a developer is smiling.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes