‘We’re designing minds’: App maker reveals secrets that keep us addicted to smartphones


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

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

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

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

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


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

Brown is one of the few industry insiders who command talk. Marketplace contacted social media giants Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. No person would go on the record to discuss their design techniques.

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

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

Habit-forming recompenses

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

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

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

These compensations trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel light-hearted, possibly even euphoric, Brown says.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Emily, a 16-year-old from Guelph, Ont., who agreed to path her smartphone use for Marketplace this past summer using an app called Before you can say Jack Robinson, has a Snapchat score of 1.2 million — several hundred thousand points before of her friends.

She calls Snapchat “addictive.”

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

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

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

‘More time than I cogitate on’

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

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

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

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

Assessing health consequences

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

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


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

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

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

“I entertain the idea 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 coupled to their technology without having an addiction … It’s not black and white.”

So, she offers people take action to monitor and possibly reduce the amount of at all times they spend on their phones.

Here are a few of her tips:

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

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