• Abigail Corfield

Explained: Why are social media and apps so addictive?

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

We all know intuitively that we can become attached to our phones, tablets and apps.

Technology designers and advertisers rely on their platform’s continual use in order to recoup the money for their investment in creating the software. They are addictive by design.

Designed for dependence

Untold hours of research and studying human behaviour goes into the creation of these devices in order to make a company’s app more desirable and addictive than their competitors.

You'll notice that in the strategies below, they are either designed to give you PAIN or REWARD.

For example, if you were creating the ideal addictive app, you would design it to:

1) Be constantly stimulating and rewarding you with new experiences. [REWARD]

2) Provide a feeling of competence, or social success (through getting likes or winning a game). [REWARD]

3) Create penalties for not constantly using the app, such as losing followers. [PAIN]

4) Send notifications when you are doing something else, to invite you to please, come back to our app for your "free daily spin on the wheel." [REWARD]

5) Ensure you are missing out when you're not on the app. “You missed my post? Well, I posted it to my Instagram stories which only lasts 24 hours, so that's on you.” [PAIN]

6) Provide an opportunity for you to join in, contribute, offer advice and help to others such as on forums like Quora and Reddit. [REWARD]

7) Create social obligations related to the app such as “Sara has invited you to play Words with Friends” [REWARD] where if you don’t respond you could be letting someone down. [PAIN]

If you bring to mind any social media platform, how many of the above criteria do they satisfy? Most likely it’s the majority, if not all of them!

Who could possibly resist all of that in an app?

With that in mind, anyone who is a human on planet earth is susceptible to becoming dependent or attached to a digital device or apps or social media, because these were all designed specifically to make them irresistible to human brains.

Sadly, we are not in control of how addictive our devices are designed to be, and it's hard to even admit to ourselves that we are easily manipulated by technology design. Much like the advertisements we’ve all grown up with, we try to convince ourselves we are ‘completely aware and unaffected’ by these fancy marketing campaigns, and it “can’t affect me because i ignore it all”. Do you know at least one person who thinks they’re savvy enough to not be affected by advertising? (Could that person even be you..?)

The point I’m making is that we cannot outsmart our devices and use them for the benefits without having the negative effects too. I wish it could be that simple, but it really is not.

We probably all could do with some knowledge about devices and start setting boundaries for ourselves and for children or dependants.

Try going without your phone for a day yourself

Confession time. I am very addicted to my phone, my iPad, my podcasts, my audible account and any other kind of knowledge that I can stream all day long. It feels incredible to ‘learn’ so much in a day, and be informed of world news, new studies, areas of specialism I would never go into but love to hear a snippet of..

And yet.

When I sat down to write this article, my brain’s first instinctual thoughts were “I should google why are people obsessing with their phones”...on my phone. My clever brain has been full to the brim of podcasts over the last ten years, and when an opportunity to tap into that knowledge arrives, my brain says “Err...let's Google it?”

“Have I lost the ability to think for myself?”

I glared at my phone for betraying me, and left it face down on the kitchen table and took myself off into another room to write this article about how to set limits for technology in our lives. That humbling moment taught me that any advice I offer out must also apply to me too.

So, as a commitment to walk my talk, I’ve decided to turn the phone off for today. For the next 30 days if I want to listen to a podcast I can, but I have to write an article about it before I listen to another one. Next month I will report back on how it went.

What will you do now that you know this?

It is easy for us to become endless consumers on a subject. I know that all too well believe me! I’m willing to be that this may not be the first article you’ve read on this subject. Information is great, but taking action is what will give you freedom.

I would encourage you to try taking one small action to experience this yourself in real life, not as an “interesting point” to be raised. Are you willing to give up an app, to experience for yourself why and how apps are addictive? Perhaps you could learn from finding out, a lot more than reading an article.

What app would you like to eliminate or reduce using for a month? What sort of challenges would that present for you? What resources (a calculator, a camera, a watch) could you separate from your phone, to avoid being so dependent on it?

Maybe share your thoughts in the comments below?

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