All the ways your smartphone has you hooked

August 15, 2018

Finding the lure of your Instagram feed or an unread text just too hard to ignore?

You’re not alone.

A new UK-based report by the Office of Communications, the country’s communication regulator, has found that people check their phones every 12-minutes.

And it’s no surprise.

For years, phone companies and app developers have been finetuning their creations to keep us glued to their screens as long as possible.

App creator Nick Kuh worked for mobile poker games before creating Mute, an app designed to help wean people off their phones.

Mr Kuh said the trick with any free app is that “you are the product”.

“They make their business by selling you to advertisers, and to do that they need to keep making you want to grab your phone,” he said.

Integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke agrees.

“A lot of brainpower has gone into making phones addictive so people stay on them longer than intended and go on them more,” she said.

“Like a cigarette or a drink, a phone offers an immediate solace or distraction. When we get notifications, we get this dopamine hit and a quick reward.”

We’ve pulled together some tips to help you outsmart your phone if you’re looking to get some peace and quiet.

Red icons are impossible for phone users to ignore. Picture: AFP/Arun SankarSource:AFP

Seeing red

You know those little red icons you get in the corner of each app, when you have unread messages?

They’re called badges, and they’ve been designed to be as annoying as possible.

A lifetime of looking at stop signs, flags and warnings have taught us that we usually have to pay attention to the colour red.

The colour makes us uncomfortable on a subconscious level. Seeing it can release a small dose of cortisol, the stress hormone, which makes us want to click the app to get rid of them.

This stress is followed by a small release of dopamine — the pleasure hormone, the same as when you orgasm — when we read the message, creating an addictive cycle which can be hard to escape.

And it’s not just notifications that rely on this trick.

“You’ll see a lot of apps that use red in the icon because it’s been proven to draw us in,” Mr Kuh explains.

“That’s why Instagram’s icon has changed over the years to become more red than it used to be.”

How to beat it

Switch your phone’s colour scheme to greyscale under the accessibility settings. This will set your display to black and white, and counter the effects of colourful app icons. You can turn off badge notifications in your phone’s notification settings.

Desperate for news

Seeing the little “…” on messaging apps when the other person is typing keeps you staring at your screen for a few seconds longer.

Then, when the message comes through, it’s like a reward — and we get a tiny dopamine boost in return for waiting for the message.

How to beat it

Unfortunately, there’s no way to turn off this feature in iMessage or WhatsApp. However, switching to plain old texting will let you avoid this sneaky trick.

Good vibrations

Notifications on your lock screen have been meticulously engineered to lure you back by stopping you from whatever you’re doing and forcing you to think about the app, often with a vibration which kicks you into gear.

Mr Kuh says the power is in the name.

“We don’t choose when they come in, the app can push to us at any point and interrupt our flow,” he said.

How to beat it:

Just turn them off. Push notifications for every app can be controlled in your phone’s notification settings.

FOMO and guilt

Many apps harness the power of social pressure to keep us hooked.

You’ve probably seen this on WhatsApp, where your friends can all see when you were “last seen” using it and when you’ve read their messages.

This is designed to make us feel guilty about not replying to people, which forces us to spend more time using the app.

Another weapon in every tech company’s arsenal is FOMO — the fear of missing out — which is behind those “here’s what you missed” notifications.

Mr Kuh says FOMO is a driving force behind apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

How to beat it

You can turn off the “last seen” feature and read receipts in WhatsApp under the app’s privacy settings. The best way to avoid FOMO, meanwhile, is to turn off the notifications for the apps that are bugging you.

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