Are phones designed to be addictive?

Are smartphones designed to be addictive?

In short, the answer is very much a resounding “yes”.

We hear all the time about people being addicted to their phones, or having a Facebook addiction – perhaps family members have joked with you that you’re “addicted to that thing” with a disapproving head gesture as you sit on your phone in a corner instead of making eye contact with them. You might laugh it off, or get instantly defensive, quickly snapping back, “I am NOT!”.

But actually, you are probably are. Not because you’re a terrible human who doesn’t want to interact with your lovely family members and friends, or because you have an addictive personality, but because the people who designed your phone and the apps you use actually want you to become addicted, and have intentionally designed these devices and software to keep you hooked.

So what exactly do designers do to make you addicted to your phone?

1. Bright Colours

The human eye is biologically drawn to bright colours. If you see something in black and white, it has much less of an impact on how you feel and is much less engaging. The bright and bolder the colour, the more engaging something is and causes a response in your brain that says “hey, I want to look at that!”.

Many apps have re-designed their logos in the past few years to make them brighter and bolder. Remember the old Instagram and YouTube app icons? Pretty dull, muted shades of brown, not much colour, don’t really draw your attention.

YouTube – Old icon


Instagram – Old icon


Then look at their re-designed icons. Bold, high contrast, warm and bright colours. Colours that make you look, colours that entice you in.

YouTube – Current icon


Instagram – Current icon

Bright colours are also purposely used for other things, such as notification alerts. The little red circle with a number in that appears in the top corner of an app when you have a new unread notification is bright red. Because you wouldn’t see it if it was mint green or lilac would you? Apple and Android know this, so they make them red (and incredibly annoying to look at!) to catch your eye and make you open them so that you read what you need to read to make them disappear.

2. The Pull-To-Refresh ⬇️

You know that pull-down action you have to do on your phone to refresh your app (emails/social media/YouTube)? That’s not just designed to be easy and quick, but it’s designed to be like the slot machines in a gambling casino, i.e. addictive.


An article for online magazine VICE explains, “The easiest way to understand this…is by imagining a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable meaning you might win, or you might not. In the same way you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won. Or you swipe right on Tinder to see if you’ve won.”

You may find yourself unlocking your phone and quickly tapping on an app and pulling down the screen to refresh your feed (all done within about two seconds, it’s a habit). And nothing new appears. So you think, “ah well, nothing new for me here” and put your phone down.

A minute later, it’s time to check again. This time as you swipe down, three new tweets appear. “Ah yay! Something new to read!”. You quickly scan the tweets, perhaps you like one or retweet it to your timeline. A breaking news story. A relatable “there’s nothing worse than being warm and snuggly under your duvet then having to get up and brave the cold air” tweet. A mickey-take at Donald Trump. You feel satisfied, so you put your phone back down and get on with whatever you were doing before you picked it up.

Then you get a text, so you grab your phone again, ping off a quick reply to your dad/wife/housemate about what you want for tea, and there’s that bright sunset-coloured Instagram icon glowing at you, enticing you to just have a quick peek at your feed.

You pull-to-refresh.

Your sister has posted a photo of herself out with her uni friends, oh and there’s your boss’s dog looking oh-so-cute-and-cuddly and he’s somehow clever enough to write his own Instagram caption with his paws, and there’s your mum’s photo of a flower out on a walk with her friend. Sweet.

Double-tap, scroll, double-tap, scroll, double-tap, scroll… Bored of that, you scroll back to the top. Anything new? Quickly pull to refresh. Nothing new. Back to what you were doing before. Two minutes later, Facebook is calling you to have a quick check for any new memes to tag your mates in. Quickly pull down on the screen. There’s a new meme that’s SO Jack on a night out.

And on it goes! Gambling with yourself to see if anyone has posted any updates in the last fourteen seconds.

Chances are, they have. Chances are, you’ll see them. Chances are, you’ll want to check again in less than two minutes’ time.

It’s all intentional – to keep you distracted from the real world and engaged with the app.

3. Infinite Scrolling

Did the double-tap, scroll, double-tap, scroll sentence above sound familiar? Infinite scrolling is a design technique used on all social media apps. You scroll down your feed and you scroll some more, and you just keep scrolling, and there is no actual end to the page. You don’t reach a last post on your Facebook newsfeed, or an end tweet. There’s no final Instagram photo. It just keeps going and going and going until you decide to stop.

This technique is purposely addictive – there’s always something new to look at, always a next post and a post after that, and you have to have the willpower and self-control to stop scrolling and go and do something else. These apps want to keep you scrolling. It’s not that you don’t want to reach the end of your feed, it’s just that they won’t let you. It’s actually impossible.

4. Streaks and Rewards

*Opens camera*
*Quickly takes a selfie*
Caption: Just sending you this so as not to break the streak.
*Hits send*
You’re most likely to perform that pointless little routine on apps like Snapchat. I say pointless, but the point is that it’s not pointless – the point is that they have a point… getting points! Apps such as Snapchat and Timehop have features called “a streak”, something used on video games and casino machines. Essentially, it’s a score that keeps adding up if you do a particular action, and if you don’t do that action for a certain amount of time, the score goes back to 0. So with Snapchat, if you send at least one snapchat to a particular “friend” in a 24-hour period, your score goes up by one point each day. If you miss a day and go 27 hours without snapping your friend, you’re back to zero and you’ve broken the streak. ARGH, so frustrating! Now I have to start all over again!

Image from Business Insider

Snapchat also gives you emoji trophies for snapping achievements. If you manage to send a snap with two filters on it, you get the peace emoji trophy. The more snap achievements you get, the more emoji trophies you are rewarded with.

The point of getting points, streaks and trophies is to reward you for using the app. Just like arcade games, you get instant rewards, which encourages you to play more. Instant gratification. It makes you feel good (clever, productive) so you do it again.

Isn’t it all becoming so blindingly obvious?!

I’m sure you’ve thought that you probably spend too much time on your phone. It kind of feels good to know that it’s not entirely your fault, right?!

But if you genuinely want to try and kick the addiction, here are a few things you could do…

5 ways to stop looking at your phone so much!

1. Turn down the brightness on your phone. Your screen is less stimulating and distracting when it’s dull!

2. Turn off push notifications for social media. You don’t need to be notified about every single like that your Instagram of your breakfast gets.


3. Delete your social media apps. (I can hear the panic going through your head – “but what will I LOOK at?! How will I know what’s going on in the world?!”). Well, you can still check your social media feeds by going on the mobile version of the site in your web browser. I often delete my apps and just check my feeds this way and I find I end up checking them a lot less because they’re not just there staring at me. Also, it’s more effort to type in than to just tap on a giant ‘f’, so you’re less inclined to check it so often. Plus, when you delete your social media apps, there’s not really much else to look at and your phone becomes somewhat boring, so you end up putting it down much quicker. Maybe just delete your apps for an hour to start with, then a day, then a week. You’ll soon become disinterested and find other things to do with your time!


4. Put your phone in your desk drawer when you’re at work. If you can’t see it, you’re less likely to unlock it.


5. Turn it on ‘Do not Disturb’ mode. This prevents your phone from making any sound or vibration when you receive a notification, and prevents your screen from lighting up too. Again, if you can’t see when you’ve got a notification, you’re less likely to go on your phone.




It’s a little worrying how reliant we’ve become on our phones and just how much we look at them, but perhaps it’s less worrying to know that it’s not because we’re unsociable and rude, but that we’re being programmed to do so. Actually – that’s quite worrying too!

Try to take phone breaks where possible. The more you do, the easier it will be to put down your phone and do something valuable with your time instead!

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