The Science behind Addictive Apps

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The smartphone is a recent invention – not even a decade old yet its use is ingrained into our daily routine. It’s almost unthinkable to end the day without even using it once and true enough, individuals peek at their smartphones an average of 110 times a day. This not extreme, normal even; but about 89% of this time is spent on mobile apps and not on normal phone utilities. More than 176 million smartphone users access apps over 60 times a day. Interestingly, app users do not access more than 30 apps every month. This can mean that they are accessing the same app over and over, day after day. Is it safe to point accusing fingers to addictive apps? Or is our obsession with the very concept of having apps the root of the problem?


What Makes an App Addictive?


Addictive apps are designed to be just that.


It is said that app addiction is “built into the mindset of app development”. This is the same mechanism that makes the user return to an app to bust boredom. To learn more about the concept and design of these apps, read our previous article.


It is a common consensus that these types of apps target the brain’s reward center the same way addictive drugs do. Actions that cause happiness or pleasure trigger the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine also aids in regulating our movement and emotional responses. It enables us to identify rewards (in this case the use of apps) and boosts our desire to achieve said rewards.


Addiction begins when we continually succumb to the desire for rewards. The brain would begin to associate the apps (or the actions within the apps) with the rewarding feeling. But then, we want more and more of this good feeling that soon enough, a small dose is no longer enough – it no longer satiates us like before.  This then creates a cycle of dependence. Dopamine levels lower when we don’t get “the fix”, that is the reward. Withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, focus issues and even nausea kick in.


There are constant reminders of their presence.


“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) in his interview with The Kernel.


User engagement is undeniably one of the most important app performance metrics. So it stands to reason that app developers would want users to access the app often and what better way to do it than to give them the option to receive notifications on important events within the app? User behavior trends surface through machine learning and A/B testing. These trends guide app developers and marketers into driving more user engagement.


This is especially true with social media feeds since every notification gives the illusion of new information.  According to a 2011 study dubbed “Unplugged”, volunteers who abstained from using their phones and other technological devices experienced withdrawal symptoms within just 24 hours.


We take the bait because of some subconscious need


What is really the reason why we can’t do without checking our apps? After all, we can decide to ignore them. But it seems that we can’t stop ourselves even if we try. It turns out that we compulsively check our apps, not because of the pleasure it brings, but because we want to shake off anxiety and stress.


Dr. Larry Rosen is a research psychologist and an expert on the psychology of technology. According to him, what is going on isn’t just purely addiction. There are two processes that make it appear that we no longer make conscious choices. Also, factors like sleep deprivation, mood, and anxiety disorders seem to also influence the way we interact with technology.

Then it becomes a habit – an obsessive habit


But when does addiction/dependence on apps begin? Nir Eyal’s formula for habit formation explains a sequence called “the hook.” The hook begins with a trigger that persuades someone to try out something. This trigger is almost certainly a negative emotion. This conforms to Dr. Rosen’s study, stating that the overuse of apps springs from feelings of anxiety and stress.  The person is first “hooked” by subconsciously going through the sequence repeatedly. It becomes a habit that whenever the person remotely anticipates the trigger, his/her instant reaction is to go through the hook sequence.


Moreover, it is easier displace and existing behavior than to create a new one. “Pinterest replaced the habit of bookmarking and in fact the people who are avid Pinterest users, they install this PinIt button on their browser geographically very close to the old bookmark button. That’s not by coincidence. That’s the old trigger,” Eyal said. Therefore, even before addictive apps came along, people were going through the hook sequence using another tool.


The psychology behind addictive apps and app addiction isn’t as straightforward as expected. But at the same time, there are solid parallels between substance abuse and app addiction. A majority of substance abusers have difficulty coping with negative emotions so they use the reward of escape from reality to shake off these emotions. App addicts are the same, but instead of committing socially unacceptable actions, they cope using the escape of virtual reality. The only difference is that our idea of “reward” is something coveted in of itself because of the “good feeling” it brings but in reality, addicts actually seek this “reward” to feel less of a negative emotion.

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