Ever wonder why it is so hard to get off Facebook?
Sure, partly it’s because we like connecting with our friends or that it can be a great place to get news or information. But why does it sometimes feel like we can’t stop?
What is addiction?
First, a quick note on what “addiction” actually is.
Addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is when a person “uses substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.” In other words, just doing something or using substances a lot is not enough to be an addiction. There has to also be harmful consequences, which could be negative effects on work, school, or relationships. It usually is associated with a person wanting to stop but not being able to.
Addictive behavior is usually discussed in relation to substances like tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, opioids, and others. But drugs are not the only things we can be addicted too. Behavioral addictions are real too. For example, gambling is a real, and quite common, addiction. Psychologists are also starting to look at whether internet gaming can sometimes be considered an addiction.
Addictions are rooted in the reward centers of our brains. The reward center exists to encourage you to engage in activities that help keep you alive and propagate the species. That’s why it’s activated when we eat or have sex—these are behaviors that are good for us and the species. When it’s activated, the reward centers pump out neurotransmitters that make us feel good. Dopamine is one of those neurotransmitters.
Many of the substances that we become addicted to mess with those neurotransmitters. The behaviors, too, mess with the neurotransmitters. For example, the dopamine system has been linked to problematic gambling.
Can we be addicted to our phones?
However, we are seeing cases of people’s behavior that meets the criteria for addiction. Researchers have found that the some people do display the classic symptoms of addiction towards their phone: they overuse it, they lose control of their behaviors, they can become preoccupied with it, they can experience withdrawal symptoms, and it can have negative effects on their social and work lives.
I should clarify though that just because you use your phone a lot does not mean that you are addicted to it. Also, the number of people that have these negative consequences is relatively low. Still, there are many people that wish they spent less time on their phones. This article explains why it’s difficult to stop using our phones—even when we want to.
Why can we get addicted to our phones?
Part of the reason is that our phones are designed to provide us a hit of dopamine.
Part of the reason gambling is so addicting is because it is designed to activate your neural reward center. The slot machines are the clearest example of this. They have bright, flashing lights, and sounds that give a dopamine hit and encourage us to keep playing. They also have a variable ratio schedule of reward—the wins are random. This means that, because you don’t know if you’ll be rewarded on the next pull, you want to keep doing it over and over again.
Our phone apps, like slot machines, are designed to provide rewards that hit us with dopamine.
Alerts and push notifications.
First, our apps get us to come to the app and notifications are the primary way that they do this. The notifications remind us about the app, but they also promise a reward, since the notifications are usually about someone liking our stuff, commenting on it, or sending a message.
Likes are the main source of reinforcement that apps provide. We love it when we get lots of likes. Studies have shown that social stimuli—like smiling faces, positive recognition, messages from loved ones—cause our brains to release dopamine. The likes we get from social media, as well as the comments and messages, create a chemical reward that encourages us to engage more.
Lights and colors.
Like the slot machines, apps provide lights and colors that make them more rewarding. Just think: would Candy Crush be nearly as interesting without them?
You’ll notice that likes are not simply a thumbs up or a red heart anymore. Apps are increasingly using “micro-interactions” to provide even more of a dopamine hit. A micro-interaction “is a single use, subtle visual queue that draws your attention to a change in status. A power light on a coffee pot, or a color change on button hover are two examples”.
Basically, they are the little animations that occur when you do actions on the apps. On Twitter, if you like something, there’s a little circle of confetti that appears. On Medium, when you clap for someone’s article, you see a little colorful firework. I haven’t used Facebook in years, but I remember that the little reaction faces moved when you hovered over them. These apps are at the forefront. You’ll start seeing micro-interactions in most apps going forward.
Why? For the same reason that the slot machines have flashing lights: we like them. They make us more likely to keep engaging with the app.
Uncertainty is its own reward. Researchers have found that uncertainty provides it’s own hit of dopamine. In gambling, the anticipation that we get when we’re uncertain whether we’ll win can sometimes be as chemically rewarding as the win itself. That’s why slot machines don’t just instantly tell you whether you’ve won or lost. They let the wheels spin for a bit first.
Apps do this too. The little envelope with an “M” animation that happens before Gmail opens is one example. The blue circle icon on Twitter and the “M” that appears before Medium opens is another. These are not just icons you see as the application is loading—they would occur even if your internet was lightning fast. They are a design feature aimed at creating anticipation.
This is also why Facebook and Twitter both allow you to scroll indefinitely, and why we do end up scrolling indefinitely. It’s the same reason we continue to pull the lever at the slots: you never know when something good will come up. The uncertainty gets you to repeat the behavior.
What can I do?
In response to the increasing time we’re spending on our phones, there’s been a movement towards “digital minimalism“. There are some great resources out there for that, and this isn’t the space to review it all.
But I will leave you with one tip if you want to use your apps less: change the settings of your phone to be in black and white. It’s in your settings under accessibility features.
Because this removes the dopamine we get from the colors in the apps, and so it makes using social media less rewarding. Experiencing Facebook in grey scale will make it less enjoyable and easier to quit using.