Addicted to Your Phone? Blame Its Design

The bright colors, notification bubbles, and constant beeps are fueling our need to click and swipe.

Pull out your phone, refresh your feed, put it away. *Ding* You’ve got a text, pull your phone out again, respond. Wait. Wait some more. Wai-, no. Check the news feed, pull down, refresh. Red dot, check notifications, swipe up, swipe again. Ok, put the phone away. Wait. *Ding* Repeat.

This routine happens an average of 80 times a day for Americans, according to a recent Asurion study. The cause isn’t just our incredibly short attention spans (eight seconds, according to a Microsoft study). Technology experts say smartphones are inherently designed to keep us checking, scrolling, texting, and watching. From the captivating colors to the constant alerts, it’s no wonder we can’t go four minutes without looking down.

And while some tech companies are now offering ways to reduce the addictive nature of their products, these tips will only reduce, not eliminate your cravings to click and swipe.

The Dark Side of Social Media

Some of most addictive features of our smartphones involve social apps. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, even apps like Messages and Mail were researched and formulated to make you want to engage with them. Developers used bold, bright colors to draw you in, and infinite scrolling and autoplay to keep you there.

In BBC’s “Panorama” documentary, “Smartphones: The Dark Side,” technology engineer and former Mozilla employee, Aza Raskin says even something as minute as Facebook’s “Like” button was designed to keep you incessantly tapping: “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”

But it goes way beyond the thumbs-up or the double tap. App developers know how to leverage our need for social approval and feed into our fear of missing out. Did someone tag you in a photo? How do you look in it? Did you get a friend request? These thoughts will keep you coming back to the apps over and over again— which is exactly how developers designed it.

What’s their secret to luring us in? Human behavior. App makers purposefully toy with our emotions and behavior. B.J. Fogg, a psychologist whose theories have influenced the tech industry, explains on his website that “three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and a prompt.” Instagram, for example, motivates us to post a photo that will get reactions. We’re triggered by the notification that someone liked or commented on the photo, then given the ability to quickly tap open the Instagram app and see how many reactions that photo now has.

Now imagine all the other ways this framework is being used to manipulate your behavior in social apps.

Hijacking Your Mind

What also keeps us hooked on our phones: The little red notification bubble—another intentional design choice. Studies have shown that our eyes are attracted to the color red, and that it can affect our brains, making us alert, angry, or even seduced. And when you combine those effects with the excitement of what that red bubble could mean (the text you’ve been waiting for, the perfect match on Tinder, that job offer email), there’s little stopping you from opening that app and then refreshing it.

Because of the power of the red notification, former Google Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris compares our phones to an addictive game. As he put it in a 2016 essay:

“Here’s the unfortunate truth… When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.”

It’s that unpredictability, Harris says, that partly makes our phones so addictive.

Reducing the Urge

So, what are we supposed to do, revert to an old flip phone? That’s an option, but probably not for everybody. Our smartphones keep us connected, store our memories, and entertain us. As long as this is the case, most people are going to use them.

But over the past few months, following criticism from investors and an appeal from users, companies like Apple and Google are beginning to acknowledge that they’ve got us hooked. And now they’re creating ways to help us manage the addiction a little better.

If you’re an iPhone user, you can take advantage of several new features Apple introduced in its iOS 12 update. The Screen Time app, for example, provides detailed reports of how long you use certain apps, how many notifications you received and how often you picked up your phone. Screen Time also lets you set time restraints for your most used apps—when you go over the limit, you get locked out.

Apple has also improved notifications in general. Now, you have the option to receive group notifications that you can dismiss with a single swipe. You can even choose to get notifications delivered quietly by enabling them to appear in the Notification Center, but not as an audible, visible badge on the lock screen.

If you’re an Android user, Google has provided a few ways to break your gaze with the screen. The Shush feature will turn off notifications and silence calls whenever your phone is flipped over. You can still receive alerts from specific contacts that you choose, but for the most part, when the phone’s face-down, it won’t bother you.

Google is also getting better at bedtime rules. Its Wind Down mode will automatically turn your phone into a grayscale palette when it’s time for bed. Not only is this a visual signal to power off, but with less bright colors you won’t be tricked into mindlessly scrolling.

Will these measures actually help you curb your phone addiction? Maybe, but *ding* Sorry, I better get that.

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