Why It’s So Hard To Put Down A Smartphone

Technology companies have made you addicted to your smartphone. Here’s how they do it.

If you’re like the average person, you probably spend hours on your cell phone. Maybe you’re a Twitter fan, thumbing through your timeline to stay up to date with all your friends and news sources. Maybe you’re more into Reddit, losing hours to funny cat videos and wholesome memes. Or maybe you’re more into Instagram, always staying up to date on your favorite celeb.

Whatever your poison, phones are sucking more hours out of everyone’s day than anything else. The average person spends 5 hours per day on some kind of mobile device, according to Popular Science, and touches their phone upwards of 2,000 times per 24-hour period. That includes scrolling, tapping, swiping, and if you’re on an older phone, even pressing buttons (ew).

You’re probably not aware of it, but this mobile addiction is actually all by design. Software programmers want you on their platform as often as possible, and they’ve engineered some pretty clever (or dastardly, depending on how you look at it) ways to keep you glued to your screen.

Take Twitter. Whenever you load the app, there’s a half second pause where you’re presented with a blue screen and the iconic tweeting-bird logo. That pause isn’t really the app loading on your phone–most phones could load that program instantly if they wanted to. The delay is actually programmed into the phone to create a sense of anticipation in the user.

That anticipation is then rewarded with your Twitter timeline, but you usually end up where you last left off. To get to the good stuff, you gotta scroll, scroll, scroll. Each time you scroll it’s just like pulling the lever on a slot machine; you’re rewarded with more content, and in the back of your mind, a tiny bit of dopamine is produced to say, “This is great! Let’s keep going!” And now you’re hooked.

You might remember dopamine from such drugs as cigarettes or heroin–it’s the pleasure brain chemical, and it’s meant to reinforce things you love. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty easy to make your brain go haywire, causing addiction.

That’s not all. Apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr rely on a psychological concept called “variable rewards.” It means that you’re more likely to check something if you only get a reward some of the time, rather than all of the time. It’s the feeling of “I can’t stop scrolling, otherwise I’ll miss something!” that you might experience from time to time. If every Twitter post was gold, then you wouldn’t have that feeling, but since some are great and some are average, you gotta sort through them all the time to stay on top of the good stuff.

It’s actually gotten so bad that Google and Apple are looking at ways to make future phones a little less addicting. Next-generation operating systems will include timers to make sure people are reminded of how long they’re staring at a screen. Keep an eye out for these features and more on the next generation of your phone’s OS.

But don’t forget to stop scrolling, otherwise you might miss the update.

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