Engineered to addict: The reason you can’t put down your phone

(Illustration by Brandon Bielinski)

Every day a room of 100 engineers shapes the lives of more than a billion people. Most likely you are among the billion and blissfully unaware of how easily you have been manipulated.

Nick Sette ’19 estimates that he checks his phone every five minutes. At times he feels like he can’t put it down. “It’s just easy to pick it up and get absorbed,” Sette said. In any given day he might be changing his status on Face- book. scrolling through his Instagram feed, or snapping his friends on Snapchat.

Worldwide there are roughly 2.7 billion smart- phone users according to the database Statista. A study by global tech
company Asurion showed that on average Americans check their phones 80 times a day or every 12 minutes on vacation, and the average person struggles to go more than 10 minutes without looking.

Yep, that meets the definition of addiction. But you’re not at fault. Your phone is a substance, and your interaction with it, the habit, the craving, the compulsion to pick it up, is the addiction.

Dependence By Design

Engineers who are experts in persuasion and human psychology are behind that addiction and have figured out how to make you dependent on your phone, to the point of addiction. Companies like, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram make deliberate design choices to maximize users’ attention. Their objective is to break down users’ sense of self control so that they spend more time using their phones.

Snapchat streaks are an example of how tech companies strategize for users’ attention. According to the database Statista people send 3.5 billion snapchats every day. Snap streaks show the number of consecutive days in which two people have communicated. If you go 24 hours without sending a snap to the other person the streak will be lost. Many kids admit to giving their passwords out to people when they don’t have access to their phone to keep their streak going because the thought of losing it is so unbearable.

“I had one for like three days I don’t check it enough to keep them up and now my friends get annoyed with me,” said Katherine Lynch ’21.

Another example of a de- liberate smartphone design is autoplay on Youtube, which has been proven to make it very difficult for people to stop watching videos. By automatically starting a video as soon as the current ones ends, Youtube keeps you glued to your phone.

Neva Callaghan ’19 noted that sometimes she checks her phone for one thing and then gets distracted into checking other things. “I feel like the biggest time that happens is when I pick it up to check the time and then I put it back down and I’m like I didn’t even check the time, and then you have to pick it back up again.”

Dots That Demand

Notifications influence our thoughts and actions. That little dot on your Instagram or Facebook app is red for a reason. It demands our attention. Eye tracking test have shown that humans typically are attracted to warmer colors. If the dots were a different color it wouldn’t be as enticing and might not lead us to open the app.

In nite scrolling is another way in which a user’s sense of control is diminished. It loads new material continuously but offers no stopping point for users. “I do special effects makeup so I’ll just waste like an hour going through watch- ing people do different looks and stuff,” Lynch said.

So what’s the problem with a little phone addiction?

Social media does not fulfill the need of in-person connections.

The fear of missing out FOMO, also plays a role in the negative effects of smart- phones. “When we didn’t have phones, when we didn’t have social media, you could miss out on something and not know. But now you know because it’s right there,” Butts said, adding that people often compare their lives to how people depict themselves on social media.

“There’s a sort of fantasy version of peoples lives that are up there on social media. Everybody wants everybody to know they’re having a good time and then people who are looking at social media posts are comparing how they feel which oftentimes is lonely or isolated or left out,” Butts added.

What can you do? Go black & white

Turning off all notifications except for when someone is trying to contact you and set- ting your phone to grayscale is a great way to minimize usage. Grayscale takes away all color which diminishes some of the techniques used to lure you in.

Delete, delete, delete

While Nick Sette does use grayscale, he uses it for battery saving purposes only and was unaware of its actual purpose. To prevent himself from using his phone when he needs to focus he finds deleting to be more helpful. “To stop using stuff a week ago I just deleted all my social media. That’s how I keep myself from going on it.”

Fill life with real interaction

“I feel like staying busy helps me not be bored and want to go on my phone all the time” said Emma Bisaillon ’22. But that “busy” needs to be away from the phone. Callaghan noted that checking her smart- phone is just a way to keep busy all the time. “Even when you’re walking across campus you see every- body on their phones, just because we don’t like to have that moment of solitude.”

Tracking Apps

Smartphones users can also track their usage by us- ing screen time or apps like Moment, which log how much time they spend on their phone per day and how often they pick it up.

But the trick is to only use these apps as a way to reduce time on the phone, not to keep going on your phone to check your usage.