3.5 billion people use a smartphone worldwide, whilst the US population check their phones an average of 80 times each day. And whilst it varies, research reveals the majority of us spend almost 4 hours on our phones every day – one-quarter of our waking lives. Reflecting on these shocking stats, it may seem as though our smartphone habits are a result of human wiring; an inherent craving for social interaction, or maybe a lack of discipline. And whilst these factors can’t be ignored, there’s more to smartphone addiction than first meets the eye.
Smartphone interface designers employ “behavioural design” - a host of features and techniques that ensure our smartphones are pleasurable to look at, engage with, and hold. The urge to reach for our devices during meals, conversations, and on waking waking up, is partly thanks to the pull of their slick appearance and polished glow. Silicon Valley tech insider and designer Aza Raskin explains, "Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally a thousand engineers that have worked… to try to make it maximally addicting". From a business perspective, the design of features intended to prolong our app usage is far from surprising: when we visit apps regularly, consistently, and for significant chunks of time, more revenue from advertising flows into the pockets of tech companies.
Sean Parker, Facebook's founding president, publicly announced that the company had set out to consume as much user time as possible, and that it was "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology". So, to a large degree, once we’ve clicked on an app it is the platform designers who take control. We want to explore the mechanisms behind the smartphone features designed to prolong our phone usage and fuel addiction.
It’s no coincidence that the colour red is used widely throughout the tech industry to drive people to engage via notifications. Facebook’s former platforms operations manager Sandy Parakilas explains that the red colour of the notification badges on social media apps is a trigger colour used to signal importance. Not only is it the most vivid colour for ocular perception, but it lights up areas of the brain that other colours do not. This is backed by science: research dating back to 1974 revealed that the colour red triggers a greater galvanic skin response (changes in sweat gland activity) usually caused by some form of stress, than the colours blue or yellow. Micheal Wagner, an information architect explains that long before the dawn of iPhones and notification design, it was culturally acknowledged that the colour red signals importance and immediacy (warning signs, traffic lights, fire, and blood). Wagner notes that the use of red as a notification badge is ingenious since “we are already conditioned to pay attention to red signals as items that require our attention”.
In 2006, Aza Raskin designed the endless scroll feature we are accustomed to using on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok and a host of other social media apps. Before this invention, social media users would have to click to the next page to access more content, but now, the page never ends, subtly encouraging us to scroll endlessly. Raskin was one of many designers driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the tech giants companies that employed them. Its appeal is obvious: infinite, endless scrolling drives users to subconsciously scroll through massive chunks of content, without effortful clicks or taps, and with no finish line in sight. This trance-like, endless scrolling is a big win for apps that are designed to be immersive, as it sends users into a state of ‘flow’. In their most general sense, flow states increase productivity and focus, whilst distorting our sense of time (making minutes and hours feel like seconds). This sense of total immersion, to the extent of forgetting about time and space whilst using an app, is exactly what app developers set out to achieve.
And streaming sites like YouTube and Netflix employ similar techniques: as soon as one video ends, another video begins streaming automatically. Viewers get more and more absorbed, which makes it hard to stop watching. Raskin explains that the ‘endless scroll’ feature mimics the famous ‘infinite soup bowl’ experiment, in which if a bowl of soup automatically refills itself unbeknownst to the eater, people tend to eat significantly more, due to the absence of any stopping cues (an empty bowl). Similarly, the endless scroll feature deprives users of any stopping cues, and doesn’t give our minds time to catch up with our impulses. The average Brit scrolls through their smartphone at a pace of 5.149 miles per year. This equates to 22.7 meters (!) per day per person. Collectively (and perhaps most shockingly), the population of the UK is scrolling 210 millions miles each year. In hindsight, Raskin admitted feeling guilty that the sheer power of the design features he helped to create have triggered widespread social media addiction.
Whilst the fact that the apps we know and love employ design features to hook us without our knowing might come as an alarming surprise, Silicon Valley insiders and tech giants have begun to take steps in the right direction. Ex-Google designer Tristan Harris sparked the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement in 2013, which advocates for tech companies to avoid social media features that contribute to device addiction. In early 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to make large-scale changes to Facebook, under the ‘Time Well Spent’ motto, intending to shift the focus from the mere length of time spent on the app to the quality of the time spent there. Instagram also introduced a feature in its timeline to notify users when they've seen all the posts in their feed, somewhat counteracting the effect of the all-immersive endless scroll. Building on this, Harris and Raskin founded the Centre for Humane Technology, a non-profit organisation that encourages tech giants to respect users' time, and to create platforms that achieve more than just maximizing app usage to sell advertising.
This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published 15th August 2020
Institute of Psychology and Education