Life in Balance

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‘We’re designing minds’: Industry insider reveals secrets of addictive app trade

A look at the science behind the ‘technological arms race’ to keep people fixated on their phones

By Virginia Smart, Tyana Grundig
Source: CBC News

Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs in California, shares some insight about what makes some apps so addictive. Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs in California, shares some insight about what makes some apps so addictive. (CBC News)

The average Canadian teenager is on track to spend nearly a decade of their life staring at a smartphone, and that’s no accident, according to an industry insider who shared some time-sucking secrets of the app design trade.

CBC Marketplace travelled to Dopamine Labs, a startup in Venice, Calif., that uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to help companies hook people with their apps.

Named after the brain molecule that gives us pleasure, Dopamine Labs uses computer coding to influence behaviour — most importantly, to compel people to spend more time with an app and to keep coming back for more.

Co-founder Ramsay Brown, who studied neuroscience at the University of Southern California, says it’s all built into the design.

“We’re really living in this new era that we’re not just designing software anymore, we’re designing minds.”


Some people can’t even put their phone down long enough to see where they’re walking. (CBC News)

Brown is one of the few industry insiders who would talk. Marketplacecontacted social media giants Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. None would go on the record to discuss their design techniques.

Brown says he hopes by speaking to CBC, Canadians will be more informed about how they’re being manipulated to spend so much time using apps.

To make a profit, companies “need your eyeballs locked in that app as long as humanly possible,” he says. “And they’re all in a technological arms race to keep you there the longest.”

Habit-forming rewards

One of the most popular techniques, he says, is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards.

It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward.

A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a “like” or a “share” of a message you posted.

These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says.

“Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week.”

The rewards aren’t predictable. We don’t always get a like, a retweet or a share every time we check our phones. And that’s what makes it compulsive, Brown says.

Plus, he says, app developers use artificial intelligence, which is essentially decision-making code, to predict the best time to make the payouts based on the user data they collect.


Emily, a teen from Guelph, Ont., tracked her cellphone use this summer with an app called Moment. She learned she spends an average of 30 per cent of her day staring at her phone. (CBC News)

Snapchat has several features that motivate users to keep checking in.

For instance, the Snapchat score — a tally based on the photo messages a user sends and receives — is essentially a reward for being active on Snapchat. Teenagers can have scores into the millions.

Emily, a 16-year-old from Guelph, Ont., who agreed to track her smartphone use for Marketplace this past summer using an app called Moment, has a Snapchat score of 1.2 million — several hundred thousand points ahead of her friends.

She calls Snapchat “addictive.”

Snapchat’s streak feature is another reason why. It displays the number of days in a row a user snaps, or messages, a particular friend. The message could be as meaningless as a picture of a foot, yet the user feels they have an obligation to send it.

“Especially if [the streak is] over a year, then it’s really intense and you have to,” says Emily, whose last name wasn’t published for privacy reasons.

The streak feature is a technique known as a loss aversion, which often involves trying to keep users fixated on an app even when it’s not useful or they don’t enjoy it anymore.

‘More time than I think’

Emily’s tracking app revealed she uses her phone an average of three hours and 35 minutes a day, with most of that time spent on Snapchat.

Some days, Emily is on her phone between five and seven hours, or checking her phone 30 times an hour.

The numbers really hit home when Emily learned how much of her life is spent on her phone: 30 per cent of her day.  At that rate, she’s on track to spend 9 ½ years of her life staring at a screen.

“That’s a realization that I do have more time than I think,” she says. “I do have time for my homework. I would get more sleep.”

Assessing health consequences

Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, helps teens and parents to manage their technology use in healthier ways.

While it’s early days to know the full health impact, Pont says research is starting to show heavy technology use affects our overall well-being, including memory, concentration, moods, sleep, anxiety and depression.

marketplacephones3 Lisa Pont, a social worker at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, suggests people take action to monitor and possibly reduce the amount of time they spend fixated on their phones. (CBC)

A recent study from CAMH shows Ontario teens’ use of smartphones is on the rise, with 16 per cent spending five hours or more on social media per day. Many of the teens surveyed reported side-effects that include being less active, having a fear of missing out, anxiety, agitation, withdrawal and stress.

Skyrocketing phone usage is a concern, says Pont, though it’s not formally recognized as an addiction.

“I think from a prevention and public health perspective, why would we wait until something gets to that point to call it that?” she says. “People are having problems related to their technology without having an addiction … It’s not black and white.”

So, she suggests people take action to monitor and possibly reduce the amount of time they spend on their phones.

Here are a few of her tips:

  • Keep phones out of the bedroom.
  • Enjoy tech-free family time, including dinner without devices.
  • Parents should lead by example.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Limit use of apps that have no creative or educational value.

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Teen Mental Health

By: Source: The Conversation
Click here to read the article on The Conversation website

Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.