Stop Coding Junk Food and Start Disclosing “Nutritional Facts”

By Felice Gabriel, co-founder of Delvv

Like junk food, gambling, and alcohol, mobile apps can give users short-term pleasure — but they can also create destructive addictions. Although the tech world fetishizes heavy app usage, there’s a point where digital users become digital addicts. As app designers and developers, our choices affect the wellbeing of individuals and entire societies.

You can give app users what they seem to want — a syringe for the media binge. Demand, after all, is how tobacco companies justify their business. Or, you can design apps that protect your users from abuse and addiction. As I will show, it’s not that hard to do the right thing.

What The Research Says

Digital and media addiction is not new — it existed before the smartphone, but the smartphone has made it a global illness. Across decades of academic research, you can see how researchers have grappled with media addictions. You can also see a pretty clear consensus: people can abuse technology, and doing so has serious consequences.

The conversation about digital addiction changes as our technology advances. Can people be addicted to TV, or do they just lack self-control (1992)? Do internet addicts become depressed and lonely from abusing the web, or do they abuse the web because they’re lonely and depressed (2003)? If the average user spends 160 minutes per day on a smartphone, and thirty percent of that time goes towards WhatsApp and Facebook, does that mean users have a rich social life (2016)? Or, do they have an addiction that makes them chronically distracted, unproductive, and emotionally stunted?

Mobile technology is particularly hard to study because it has seeped into every activity and every waking hour of life. The new normal camouflages destructive behaviors. For instance, the average smartphone user checked his or her device 150 times per day in 2013. Millennials, on average, spend 18 hours per day with different types of media. Are those signs of illnesses, or is that modern life?

Two studies, in particular, should inform how we distinguish abuse from healthy norms. The first is a 2015 study lead by Sang Pil Han, professor of Information Systems at Arizona State University. He found that “In terms of addictiveness, [mobile social apps] more considerably foster dependency than do cocaine and alcohol, but are less addictive than caffeine and cigarettes.” Han’s team reached this conclusion examining the use of Facebook and Anipang, a popular Korean mobile game, among smartphone owners in Korea.

The second study is a literature review (i.e. study of studies) conducted by Sree Jadapalle, MD. Based on 13 MRI studies, she found that individuals diagnosed with an Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) show reduced levels of dopamine transporters. Much like drug addicts, internet addicts build up a tolerance to their media of choice. The user needs more and more of the same digital experience to feel the same dopamine high. In essence, digital abuse can mess with our brain chemistry and create abnormalities.

Regardless of what we see as commonplace or normal, it’s pretty clear that a) apps can be as addictive as hard drugs, and b) internet addictions cause visible, physical damage to our brains.

The Uncapped Use App

Mobile devices and apps are the ultimate dopamine duo. They are with us constantly, and masterfully hijack our attention. Posting about yourself on social media, multitasking, and video gaming, among other things, all stimulate your brain’s pleasure center and release dopamine.

But what distinguishes addictive apps from the rest? They are what I call “uncapped use apps.” There is no fundamental constraint on usage — the main goal is the use itself, and the dopamine reward it provides.

These apps are designed for constant, limitless use because binging is lucrative for the developer. Heavy users generate more ad revenue and make more in-app purchases. Attracting them is the primary design goal.

Most apps, on the other hand, are “capped” in use. They have an inherent goal or feature, the need for which is finite. Meditating or checking your to-do list are capped activities. While the app may encourage more of those behaviors, addiction is highly unlikely.

Uncapped use apps are not inherently evil. Rather, like alcohol or junk food, they need to be treated as any product that can be used in a safe or compulsive manner.

Designing Responsibility

Thanks to nutritional facts, we know how many calories, carbs, etc. are in a bag of potato chips. But I assure you, your users have no idea how much time they really spend in your app, and that is dangerous. Users deserve digital ‘nutritional’ facts. Knowing that the line between heavy use and abuse is vague, developers of social, gaming, or other uncapped use apps can design two features to protect people.

First, identify users who rank in the top 20 percent for daily log-ins and time spent using the app. Email or text them a weekly report that reveals how frequently they logged in and how much total time they spend interacting with the app. In settings or account information, add a Usage section where all users can see this information.

Second, design self-regulation tools and add them to your app’s Usage section. One tool could limit daily log-ins (or entry to the app) to a quantity set by the user. Another could limit daily time in the application. This will empower people to use these apps responsibly.

In the religion of the global tech community, these suggestions are heretical. Investors, journalists, and other developers will only praise you for building an app that accrues millions of users who get lost in your app for hours per day. No one will celebrate you for protecting users against mindless, destructive binging — not yet, anyway.

Tap into your moral courage. Design responsible disclosure and self-regulation tools into your app not because it’s mandated, but because it is the right thing to do.

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