I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book, started reading and wasn’t even sure why. Now replace the word “book” with “smartphone” and it becomes less absurd. We’ve reached a stage with devices wherein, despite not knowing why, we’re reaching for them more and more in our every day.
For most of us, our heightened interest in our smartphones borders on addiction, but it isn’t necessarily our fault. Unsurprisingly, it’s the exact outcome app programmers are aiming to have on your brain.
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Former Google product manager Tristan Harris made an enlightening appearance on the US version of 60 Minutes last week to explain how the addictive nature of some of the world’s most popular apps isn’t at all coincidence – they’re specifically programmed to have you use them more and more. He compares it to the pokies, and we all know how problematic they can be. He also calls it “brain hacking”.
“This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit… What you do is you make it so [that] when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward.”
“Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’” he told journalist Anderson Cooper. “This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.”
Anyone who’s stayed up late into the night for no reason other than to endlessly scroll through your Insta feed knows that the cognitive reward of yet another perfectly captured flat-lay is enough to keep you going, even if you’re not sure why.
Following a study at the University of Derby, researchers – who found that 13 per cent of participants have a full-blown addiction and spend over 3.5 hours per day on their phones – have suggested including health warnings for any app with an addictive quality.
“People need to know the potential addictive properties of new technologies,” the study’s co-author Dr Zaheer Hussain warns. “[The warning] could be before they purchase them or before they download an app. If you’re downloading a game such as Candy Crush or Flappy Bird, there could be a warning saying that you could end up playing this for hours and you have other responsibilities [that could be neglected].”
If you’re a little too interested in your friend’s response to your meme-tagging spree, maybe it’s time to step away from the smartphone.