I had an app a while back called Breakfree. It featured a little buddha, who would look sad if I used my phone too much. Reader, I killed him. He got sadder and sadder until eventually he was just a sobbing heap on the ground, bemoaning my utter incapability to put the thing down.
“You’ve unlocked your phone over 200 times today” he would sob gently to himself. “Shut up Buddha” I would huff angrily, clicking away to check a cycle of twitter, facebook, instagram, strava, facebook messenger and whatsapp notifications for the upteenth time.
But I read recently that it’s not my fault. The social media companies have to get us to look at them all the time in order to sell advertising. We are not the customers when we use our social media apps. Our attention is being flogged to the highest bidder.
They are selling our eyeballs
That’s why they encourage us to have notifications switched on. Like a rat with a treat lever, we click them continually, just to see what has ‘happened’. Sometimes it’s something genuinely exciting, sometimes it’s someone we follow having liked something we don’t care about. Oh, thanks very much for letting me know.
And when it’s something interesting, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness.
We’re carrying dopamine pumps around with us in our pockets
Anytime we are bored, or frustrated, or bored and frustrated, we zombie back online to see what’s going on.
I have lost track of the number of times I have been trying to get 3yo to put her tights on, got bored, slid onto social media, only to find that the roving toddler is raiding the biscuit barrel, and there’s me, blinking, holding some tights and wondering where the last 20 minutes have gone.
Notifications are more addictive when occasionally interesting than consistently interesting
Psychologists call this a variable-ratio schedule. It is the most addictive type of conditioning, and the hardest to extinguish. That’s why it’s used in sales, marketing, and social media user interface design.
The response to a variable-ratio schedule is a consistently high response rate. We don’t know when the reward will come, so we keep scrolling. If we were on a fixed ratio schedule, we’d get bored of it. We know when the reward is coming, so we’re on go slow until it’s time to get the reward, and might give up all together.
All of this was more powerful than any amount of weeping and eye rolling from my fictional buddhist.
Since then, Breakfree has rebranded as Space – Break phone addiction and is using the very same mind games to help me to crack the habit. Every few days of beating my unlock and time allowances, I get a space ship or some other sticker appear on the screen. Importantly, I don’t know when I’m going to get one. I just know that if I do well, my chances of winning are higher. It’s helping. Check out the Space app here