A deep dive into the techniques that app developers use to get consumers hooked on their creations, and the impacts this may have

By: Arshiya Sen and Meghana Somu

The feeling of stopping your homework to pick up your phone and take a “quick five-minute break” resonates with the majority of teens today. An hour’s worth of work can drone on to three or four just by constantly checking notifications or mindlessly scrolling down an endless personalized page.

Mobile apps are typically created with the purpose of catering to their audience so that people use the app as much as possible. Consequently, this negatively affects users by keeping them on their phones for longer periods of time, resulting in the formation of phone addictions. With its lasting physical and mental effects — examples being musculoskeletal disorders, stress, anxiety, and obesity — on the rise, awareness of this issue is imperative to maintaining the health of the general population. Because adolescents under 20 years old have been found to be at the most risk for cell phone addiction, students at MVHS must become more educated on the causes, effects, and strategies to overcome phone addiction.

Mobile apps are developed to solve a problem, provide entertainment or pursue an interest. User engagement with apps supplies developers with data that helps them improve their apps and increase revenue. However, ethical questions begin to arise about whether or not users’ well-being is kept in mind when adding addictive features to increase time spent on the app. In a research paper detailing the addictive features of social media and other apps, researchers report that a common technique used to increase user retention is the “endless scrolling/streaming feature.” The paper explains how the never-ending steam of media keeps the user engaged because the scrolling never comes to a natural stop. Another example of this technique is the ‘autoplay’ feature in streaming apps such as Youtube and Netflix.

Sophomore Akshita Nigam spoke on the addictiveness of TikTok. “Your favorite videos or videos you’ve never seen…just keep on coming up…So even though I think I’m only going to be on the app for 15 minutes, the videos just keep going and going and I lose track of time and it’s already been 45 minutes,” she said.

In a Vox interview with Tristan Harris, previous Google Design Ethicist and current CEO of Time Well Spent, he describes the similarities between slot machines and the design of apps like TikTok. 

Harris states that “The predictability would take out the addictiveness.” A similar logic is used in slot machines, which, according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Shull, can become addictive 3-4 times faster than other forms of gambling. The pull-to-refresh feature, which Harris refers to as “a conscious design choice”, imitates the pulling down of a lever, which “provides an addicting illusion of control over that process.”

Nikuj Baffna, a freshman at MVHS, shares his experience with this phenomenon, saying he has spent much of his screen time playing mobile games on his phone. “Games [like Brawl Stars] are addicting because of the progression…There is always a goal [that you want to achieve],” said Baffna.

A study covering the addictive features of certain apps and mobile games found that mobile game addiction begins to form when players invest time to achieve and gain capital in this virtually constructed word. The increased progression makes it harder for users to stop playing because of attachment to their own work, a sentiment Baffna relates to.

Machine learning algorithms are used across many social media apps today, some of the most familiar ones being Tiktok’s “for you page”, Instagram’s explore page and Youtube’s recommended section. 

Senior Jesse Li said that he spends a lot of time on Youtube because “YouTube…has an algorithm that keeps track of the videos you watch…after you watch one video, it recommends another video that it thinks you would be interested in. And generally, I am, so I keep going and sometimes I just watch YouTube for multiple hours.”

A study covering the effects of push notifications on apps found that there was a direct correlation between the number of push notifications on an app and the frequency of app visits. Researchers conducting this study also concluded the negative influence smartphone push notifications have on concentration, which causes a decline in task performance and productivity

According to junior Margaux Francoeur, TikTok can impair one’s ability to focus. “I feel like my attention span has gotten shorter because of it and so TikTok is really the only thing that keeps me entertained now, which is really bad,” Francoeur said. Greenstein talked about a similar phenomenon he has observed in his students, where they would sometimes pull out their phones during class. “I see [students on their phones] quite a bit…a lot of the time, they’re getting a text message and a text message wants an answer…or [the notification] is just crying out to them, ‘You need to respond to me!’ and some people think that they have to respond immediately.” 

School-based therapist Richard Prinz expresses some of his concerns about students putting themselves in physical danger because of their phones. 

“Sometimes people are walking across streets and they’re looking at their phones. They’re not paying attention,” he said.  Prinz later talked about how phones were affecting students’ social lives. He said, “Social interaction on a personal level is really good for mental health…you’ll see people get together at lunch because they don’t want to be alone, but they’re all sitting there on their phones.”

There are ways to combat this addiction and have a healthy relationship with your phone. Grayscaling is the process of changing your phone settings to make apps appear less colorful, therefore making your phone less visually stimulating. Bundling notifications is another technique in which phones display multiple notifications in a group during different intervals of the day, reducing the user’s overall stress. Another great way students can work on getting away from their phones is to develop new hobbies. 

Junior Innika Bhargava stated that she no longer feels that she is too dependent on her phone. She says, “I found new hobbies…Whenever I feel like going on my phone, [I decide that] I should do something else instead. Recently, I started crocheting, which helps a lot.”

With developers using several tactics to lure us into their apps, it’s important that we as users are able to step back from screens to maintain both our mental and physical health.

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