'We're designing minds': Industry insider reveals secrets of addictive app trade

The average Canadian teenager is on track to spend nearly a decade of their life staring at a smartphone, and that’s no accident, according to an industry insider who shared time-sucking secrets of the app design trade.

A look at the science behind the 'technological arms race' to keep people fixated on their phones

Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs in California, shares some insight about what makes some apps so addictive. (CBC News)

The average Canadian teenager is on track to spend nearly a decade of their life staring at a smartphone, and that's no accident, according to an industry insider who shared some time-sucking secrets of the app design trade.

CBC Marketplace travelled to Dopamine Labs, a startup in Venice, Calif., that uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to help companies hook people with their apps.

Named after the brain molecule that gives us pleasure, Dopamine Labs uses computer coding to influence behaviour — most importantly, to compel people to spend more time with an app and to keep coming back for more.

Co-founder Ramsay Brown, who studied neuroscience at the University of Southern California, says it's all built into the design.

"We're really living in this new era that we're not just designing software anymore, we're designing minds."

Some people can't even put their phone down long enough to see where they're walking. (CBC News)

Brown is one of the few industry insiders who would talk. Marketplace contacted social media giants Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. None would go on the record to discuss their design techniques.

By speaking to CBC, Brown says he hopes Canadians will be more informed about how they're being manipulated to spend so much time using apps.

To make a profit, companies "need your eyeballs locked in that app as long as humanly possible," he says. "And they're all in a technological arms race to keep you there the longest."

Habit-forming rewards

One of the most popular techniques, he says, is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards. 

It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward.

A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a "like" or a "share" of a message you posted.

These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says.

"Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week."

The rewards aren't predictable. We don't always get a like, a retweet or a share every time we check our phones. And that's what makes it compulsive, Brown says. 

Plus, he says, app developers use artificial intelligence, which is essentially decision-making code, to predict the best time to make the payouts based on the user data they collect.

Emily, a teen from Guelph, Ont., tracked her cellphone use this summer with an app called Moment. She learned she spends an average of 30 per cent of her day staring at her phone. (CBC)

Snapchat has several features that motivate users to keep checking in. 

For instance, the Snapchat score — a tally based on the photo messages a user sends and receives — is essentially a reward for being active on Snapchat. Teenagers can have scores into the millions.

Emily, a 16-year-old from Guelph, Ont., who agreed to track her smartphone use for Marketplace this past summer using an app called Moment, has a Snapchat score of 1.2 million — several hundred thousand points ahead of her friends.

She calls Snapchat "addictive."

Snapchat's streak feature is another reason why. It displays the number of days in a row a user snaps, or messages, a particular friend. The message could be as meaningless as a picture of a foot, yet the user feels they have an obligation to send it.  

"Especially if [the streak is] over a year, then it's really intense and you have to," says Emily, whose last name wasn't published for privacy reasons.

The streak feature is a technique known as a loss aversion, which often involves trying to keep users fixated on an app even when it's not useful or they don't enjoy it anymore.

'More time than I think'

Emily's tracking app revealed she uses her phone an average of three hours and 35 minutes a day, with most of that time spent on Snapchat.

Some days, Emily is on her phone between five and seven hours, or checking her phone 30 times an hour.

The numbers really hit home when Emily learned how much of her life is spent on her phone: 30 per cent of her day.  At that rate, she's on track to spend 9 ½ years of her life staring at a screen.

"That's a realization that I do have more time than I think," she says. "I do have time for my homework. I would get more sleep."

Assessing health consequences

Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, helps teens and parents to manage their technology use in healthier ways. 

While it's early days to know the full health impact, Pont says research is starting to show heavy technology use affects our overall well-being, including memory, concentration, moods, sleep, anxiety and depression.

Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, suggests people take action to monitor and possibly reduce the amount of time they spend fixated on their phones. (CBC)

A recent study from CAMH shows Ontario teens' use of smartphones is on the rise, with 16 per cent spending five hours or more on social media per day. Many of the teens surveyed reported side-effects that include being less active, having a fear of missing out, anxiety, agitation, withdrawal and stress.

Skyrocketing phone usage is a concern, says Pont, though it's not formally recognized as an addiction.

"I think from a prevention and public health perspective, why would we wait until something gets to that point to call it that?" she says. "People are having problems related to their technology without having an addiction … It's not black and white."

So, she suggests people take action to monitor and possibly reduce the amount of time they spend on their phones.

Here are a few of her tips:

  • Keep phones out of the bedroom.
  • Enjoy tech-free family time, including dinner without devices.
  • Parents should lead by example.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Limit use of apps that have no creative or educational value.


Virginia Smart is an investigative journalist for CBC Marketplace.


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