Are we about to turn against our phones?

Developers are conditioning us to stay on their apps all day long, a backlash might be on the way

How would you feel if I told you that you’re being manipulated? That, like a lab rat, you’ve been conditioned to keep using your favourite apps, hour after hour, day after day?

Does this sound farfetched? This is how a consultancy called Dopamine Labs explains how to make any app a runaway success:

Keeping users engaged isn’t luck, it’s science. Give users the right hit of dopamine at the right moment and they’ll stay longer, do more and monetise better
Those hits of dopamine don’t just feel good: they rewire the brain’s habit centres. Reinforcement is how the brain learns habits. The rhythm and timing of the hits tell the brain what to get hooked on and what to ignore

Dopamine Labs’ case studies suggest it’s only rewiring people’s brains for their own good. Getting teens to be nicer to each other or nudging elderly patients to do more exercise. Yet the same techniques can obviously applied to social media, gaming or gambling.

Does this kind of conditioning having any demonstrable impact on behaviour? Study after study suggests the answer is an overwhelming yes. People are spending 5 hours a day on their phones, around of a third of their waking hours. And 92% of this time is spent on enticing apps, an hour a day on Facebook alone.

40% of people reach for their phone within 5 minutes of waking up (I suspect this is under-reported). From then on, the phone is checked constantly, 82 times a day for younger adults. Teenagers admit to checking their phones for notifications up to 10 times during the night, coming to school exhausted as a result.

Tot all this usage up and the numbers are staggering. The New York Times calculated that, way back in 2014, Facebook users spent 39,757 collective years on the site per day.

Eye catching figures, but does anyone really care? Surely most apps are nothing more than harmless distractions that help break up the day? It’s not a huge surprise that app developers want their creations be popular. A few hand-wringing articles in the Guardian (or on Medium) don’t amount to much.

It’s true that the dawning realisation that you pay for seemingly free services with your data has been greeted with a collective shrug. Time spent on phones nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016. Being duped into paying with your precious time seems a lot more disturbing to me. No one wants to be taken for a fool.

Indeed, there are tentative signs that the addictive nature of apps is becoming a broader concern. For one, solutions are emerging to help you curb your phone habit. Dopamine Labs itself has, paradoxically, developed an app called Space that helps people “fight back in this war for their attention”. Space creates a pause between tapping on an app and it actually opening, with a splash screen encouraging you to take two deep breaths before you continue.

Another app, Moment, gives you the cold, hard facts. It shows your total daily screen time, how many times you pick up your phone, and how much time you spend on individual apps. The results can be quite confronting. It also offers in-app courses to help you get these numbers down.

Moment app showing daily phone usage

Children’s screen time is already a concern for many parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents should set limits for their kids that prioritise real-world social interaction, physical activity and sleep. Taiwanese parents can be heavily fined if they allow their children to use electronic devices for extended periods of time.

There’s also increasing discussion about whether excessive use of apps, or at least social media, might actually make you miserable.

At the extreme end of this spectrum there’s debate amongst professionals as to whether internet addiction should be now classified as a mental disorder. Another indicator that as a society we are increasingly questioning how much time we spend glued to our phones.

I’m not predicting that people will throw away their phones en masse and spend all their newly found free time walking amongst nature or practicing Tai Chi. I do think a growing section of the population will look to reduce their screen time by cutting back on those big time-killers like social media.

Should the creators of these captivating apps be starting conversations about what constitutes a healthy level of usage? It seems an odd idea to admit your own products can threaten people’s mental wellbeing. That said, it may be better to get ahead of this particular curve. It won’t be good for business if excessive screen time is ultimately seen as a public health issue.