Do Apps make us Sad?

Michaela Rehle/Reuters

Humans like to think of ourselves as rational beings, filled with common sense and the ability to plan and execute complex behaviors. However, the app-addiction phenomenon is showing our emotions are surprisingly easy to manipulate.

Our emotions have a survival function, we are also desperately emotionally charged beings. People are emotional animals, filled with anxiety, fear and attraction to people and things in the world.

Emotions also critically influence all aspects of our lives, from how we live, work, learn and play, to the decisions we make, big and small. Emotions strongly drive how we communicate and passionately connect with each other, and they impact our health and well-being in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Apps Do Make us Sad if Used Too Much

There is an increasing body of literature that over-use of apps (not very difficult these days) can negatively impact our emotional mood and even make us depressed.

Social Media is a powerful example of this. Moderate use of social media makes users happy but prolonged use has the opposite effect, according to new research by Moment.
Do the mobile apps we use the most make us unhappy

Image: Internet Health Report 2018

The State Knows if you are Sad

As machine learning can be used with facial recognition to detect our emotional mood, when our face becomes a form of payment, or a boarding pass at airports or our universal ID in a social credit system state like China, all of these organizations also know and can track over-time your emotional states as part of the data points related to your profile.

By how much we use apps, the apps themselves will know the impact of that behavior on your emotional well-being and be able to advertise to you accordingly.

The Problem of Mobile Addiction

While apps are tools to connect or gain useful information, they are also warping our consciosuness.

According to the app Moment, spending too much time on social media leads to leads to disappointment with yourself, and there isn’t a single app that makes you feel good for spending more time on it, not even your beloved music on Spottily. That is scary news for the Apple, Facebook and Google’s of the world. Behavior modification and app addiction is there bread and butter.

The primary purpose of a “good app” is to modify your behavior to use it more!
Designed to promote a healthier balance between our real lives and those lived through the small screens of our digital devices, Moment tracks how much you use your phone each day, helps you create daily limits on that usage, and offers “occasional nudges” when you’re approaching those limits. (TechCrunch)

We’ve known for quite some time that apps make us sad, suicide rates in America are on a sharp increase, social media has ruined the life of many a teen, but we haven’t really done anything about it. We seem to be okay with living in a world of this:


Somewhere along the line, maybe around 2013, our emotions lost and Apple, Facebook, Google, Tencent and others won. They won over our lives in such a ubiquitous way; we’re even comfortable saying that AI has “augmented” our lives.

So what happens when facial recognition is pervasive everywhere and our emotion are on full display 24/7 ready to be hacked by Advertisements and privacy invasive AI? If Facebook can make $40 Billion in revenue now, how much could it make with such a system?

The Weird Relationship of Apps and Happiness

Working with the Center for Humane Technology, a group of former tech insiders concerned where the industry is leading us, Moment asked 200,000 iPhone users “are you happy with your time spent?”. Their aim was to discover which apps we consider most beneficial.

The apps that came out on top for hapiness included:

  • Calm (mindfulness and meditation)
  • Google Calendar
  • Amazon Music
  • Audible (podcasts and audiobooks)
  • Weather apps
Image: Centre for Humane Technology- Via World Economic Forum.

So Which apps make us the least happy?

  • Dating apps
  • Ubiquitous apps (WeChat, Facebook, Instragram)
  • Mobile games

Future Prognosis

As apps are getting better at what they do, the behavior modification of using them more, we as emotional animals are spending more time on them.

As Facial recognition together with apps evolve, AI will be able to personalize how to “hack” us and our emotional nature in a very precise way. This will cut through our normal defenses to Ads, attention spans and other things in an unusually effective way. Think about eye-tracking in VR experiences with neuro-marketing — except in the real world.

In China, AI-startups that specialize in facial recognition are changing the world forever. The applications are so numerous as to be too useful not to implement. These startups such as SenseTime and Yitu, will only get smarter.

Not only do apps make us sad, how they modify our behavior can also be monetized by firms and how we react in public can be recorded to know more about our thoughts, political preferences, and so forth. In societies where conformity is very important to maintain harmony, our own emotions will be in a sense used against us.

So here we are seeing AI is having an impact on our emotional state as human beings in a more radical way that we would have believed possible even 10 or 20 years ago.

Apps and Addiction — Where is the Breaking point?

The amount of time we spend on platforms is the key impactful data-point as to whether they make us feel good or not, according to Moment’s designer, Kevin Holesh. There exists a “happiness breaking point” for each app.

  • Above 35 minutes for any app is more or less harmful to our emotions.

We know most smartphone consumers use the same apps in a repetitive way; so it isn't’ terribly hard in that respect to spend more than 35 minutes on a single app in any given day.

Thus it means apps that average well over 35 minutes a day per user, are making hoards and mobs and masses of people unhappy. That is, they are already behavior modifying dark apps.

Takeaways: Mindfulness, Audio-books and Podcast Apps are Mild

Apps that intersect more directly with our perceived emotional needs such as dating and social media apps appear to be more dangerous. I think anybody who has had bad experiences on Tindr, Grindr or Okcupid can attest to the psychological damage they can cause.

However it’s still weird to think anything over 22 min on Facebook or 26 min on Instagram could harm us.

The idea that apps are dangerous is still foreign to our thinking.

This is how Silicon Valley has made it into our lives and mobile addiction isn’t even recognized.

That it could be disruptive to work productivity, our relationships and our cognition in 2018, is barely even mentioned.

Apps gamify an incredible amount of our lives now. In a 5G world even more of our personal data will be available to companies. Facial recognition will become ubiquitous all over the planet with the ability to read our emotions. This will also be a feature of our human facing robots, drones and the like. How apps evolve might further seek to modify our behavior, in ways that are difficult to predict. Their primate directive of making us use them more as more or less succeeded. Do apps make us sad? I hope this article has shed some light on the matter.

Apps used in moderation, may be helpful, but used too much do really make us sad. Watching too much video content, whether Netflix or YouTube also makes us sad. Doing anything too much in apps too much or “repetitive” behavior is more or less hurtful to our happiness and more positive emotions. So think about that, next time you hook up to the digital dopamine mainframe.

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