Researchers state it is time to critically reflect on the current business model of ‘user data in exchange for app-use allowance’ and that instead it might be better to ban or regulate certain design elements in apps to come up with less addictive products

In July 2019 researchers from Germany published the results of their analysis of different smartphone apps in an attempt to identify design elements that prolong app usage. This analysis was undertaken as a growing number of scientists have described various detrimental effects caused by excessive smartphone usage, such as its impact on social communication/skills in terms of reducing smiles when interacting with strangers, enjoyment of face-to-face interaction or drawing a parent’s attention away from their children. An association between anxiety, depression and use of the smartphone has also been described. In addition, excessive smartphone use has been associated with loneliness, and there is a growing number of studies that link it to negative emotionality. It is indeed imaginable that withdrawal from society and escapism into an online world might ultimately cause loneliness and reduce social connectedness. Links between internet usage disorder and BMI as well as between internet usage disorder and body image avoidance have also been found. The latter may be particularly strong on platforms such as Instagram where a person can be confronted with thin models or other (thin) attractive individuals, and this aspect will be felt especially by female users with low self-esteem. It has also been suggested that the many interruptions due to high smartphone usage could reduce productivity at work.

Discussion is currently taking place as to whether excessive smartphone usage can resemble an addiction. Gaming Disorder, as a specific form of internet addiction, has now been officially recognised and is included in the latest edition of International Classification of Diseases which is issued by the World Health Organization.

However, it is not the smartphone itself that is the cause of over-usage, but the excessive use of applications installed on the smartphone. The current business model used by many app developers works on the basis of “free application in exchange for your data” and many design elements are built into social media apps and Freemium games (from “free” and “premium”) which prolong the app usage. By keeping users occupied as long as possible more data per person can be harvested., and with an increasing amount of data, revenues will rise, due to more effective microtargeting (i.e., sending a person customized ads).

It should be pointed out, however, that what has been written here is theoretical in nature. The assumption that these mechanisms have been purely designed to prolong usage time of an app is speculative and it cannot be said for sure what the app developers had in mind when constructing a certain feature. However, some developers have confessed to the addictive nature of some of their app designs. Therefore, it is very likely that the main intention of implementing these features represents the prolongation of app usage, because companies such as Facebook and Google earn their money with data.

The following six different mechanisms illustrate the current business model described above:

  1. Endless scrolling/streaming and the concept of flow

Flow is a positive state of mind, which can promote high productivity. It is also well known that flow goes along with a feeling of time distortion – and immersion into an app is what many developers of social media apps and Freemium games aim to achieve, ie that a person is so immersed that he/she forgets about time and space.

Another technique used to prolong usage time is the endless scrolling/streaming feature. For example, on the video platform YouTube an individual can scroll down, apparently with no end, and by doing this the user is getting more and more immersed. This behaviour is then further enhanced as the individual, from time to time, finds something rewarding (eg, a funny or interesting video). These are called intermittent conditioning principles. When watching a video on YouTube, for example, as soon as one video ends another video with a similar content begins, or when watching a favourite TV series on Netflix or Amazon Prime, as soon as one episode ends, the next one begins. With this process, viewers get more and more absorbed, and find it hard to stop watching.

2. The endowment effect/mere exposure effect

These play important roles in the areas of social media and games. The ‘endowment effect’ describes the buying or owning a product which can lead to a higher (emotionally felt) value of the product, often way beyond its actual value. The ‘mere exposure effect’ describes the process whereby the more often you are exposed to a certain thing or application, the more you like it. In one game, for example, the user aims to build a large farm and is entitled to feed cattle, harvest crops and follow other agricultural related activities. There is fast progress at the beginning of the game, which attracts people to it, but then it comes to a point when progress is slow and rewards in terms of the urgently needed relevant game currency are scarce. Every time the individual visits the app platform, more time is invested in the construction of their virtual world, and it gets harder for them to detach themselves from it or even delete the app, especially if it has taken a very long time to construct it. It is their own little world now (the endowment effect) and frequently the user’s initials or name is used within the game (the mere exposure effect).

3. Social pressure

Some apps can nudge a person to behave in a certain direction. An example of this, and a successful way to increase data flow, can be seen in WhatsApp. Here, users are encouraged to communicate fast due to the ‘double tick function’. When a message is sent to a friend, the sender receives two grey ticks, ie the message has been sent and is sitting in the recipient’s smartphone. The ticks turning blue indicate that the message has been read. As everyone knows these rules, users of WhatsApp are nudged towards faster communication via social pressure. It is a process known to undermine well-being and a link between features like ‘double ticks’ and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ have been established (‘Fear of Missing Out’ describes the anxiety/fear to miss something in one’s own social network). It should be noted that the default mode of WhatsApp comes with the ‘double tick function’ being activated and most users are not aware that they are able to deactivate this feature. In general, the ‘power of defaults’ is a well-known principle applicable to decision making in many different areas and especially in software applications – and many individuals do not change their default settings. For example, there is an anecdotal report by Microsoft that only 5% of Word users change their default settings.

Social pressure also plays a role in computer games. Prominent multiplayer online role-play games enable individuals to meet at a certain time online to go on a mission together. The group may only perform well when complete, so there is pressure on each individual in an online group to be in the online world, at a certain time, to support their group. There can therefore be a stronger focus on virtual life activities instead of perhaps more pressing issues in the offline world.

4. Show users of an app what they like

An example of a this is the ‘Newsfeed’ built into Facebook. Over the years, Facebook has developed algorithms to study the behaviour of their users in detail. In order to get to know their users better, they not only record what people ‘like’ but also how long they hover over a certain post – which can be interpreted as showing a special interest in a certain area. This enables Facebook to understand not only what is interesting for their users – but also the type of mood they are in. Although, the role of mood for buying decisions/advertising is complex, this information may be of interest to many of the companies behind several smartphone/internet applications. By analysing the information in an individual’s ‘Newsfeed’, only the information thought to be of most interest to the user will be included. Otherwise, it is thought, people could get bored and close the browser window.

5. Social comparison and social reward

Perhaps one of the best known examples of a social reward mechanism in social media is the ‘thumbs up’ or giving/getting a ‘like’, which demonstrates positive social feedback. The power of such feedback has been proven scientifically. Pictures posted on different Instagram accounts were manipulated and given either many or only a few ‘likes’ and then shown to the owner of that account. Those pictures with many ‘Likes’ elicited stronger activity in the ventral striatum of the brain, which is an area involved in reward-related behaviour. Social comparison also plays an important role for revisiting social media platforms as this is how a person gets information on how he/she is perceived by their social network. However, the social comparison process may lead to lower self-esteem. Social comparison also plays a role in Freemium games, eg the high score-boards where your score can be compared to scores achieved by other players.

6. The Zeĭgarnik/Ovsiankina Effect

Studies by Zeĭgarnik and Rickers-Ovsiankina involved memory and actions taken after being interrupted whilst performing a task. In Zeĭgarnik’s study, participants were interrupted whilst solving a puzzle and afterwards remembered best the task during which they were interrupted, and in Rickers-Ovsiankina study, not only did the individuals seem to be better at remembering the tasks where they got interrupted, but several individuals went back to the unfinished tasks to finish them – even though they were not asked to do so. This suggests that individuals involved in the execution of a task react with (emotional) strain if interrupted, which is only removed by completing the task. Examples of this can be seen in the design of Freemium games, such as Candy Crush Saga where different levels have to be solved. When the game has not been played for a while, the individual is given five lives. Some levels are very hard to solve and rumour has it that some levels are impossible to solve on the first try. Players can easily loose several of their free lives and end up with no energy to finish this very hard level. Players by now are really attracted by the game, and the interruption results in emotional strain which consequently induces people to spend money to buy additional lives/gaming energy – because the next level is only a couple of minutes away.


It should be noted, however, that smartphone apps are not generally bad and do not always cause negative emotionality or dissatisfaction with one’s own body image or perceived life satisfaction. In contrast, some applications might even promote physical activity and help individuals to improve their diet.

Although research on each element of smartphone use disorder is scarce, it has been demonstrated that individuals do have problems in assessing their smartphone consumption, which is probably due to time distortions.

It should however be mentioned that moves have recently been made in Silicon Valley which aim to foster “Time Well Spent” on digital platforms and applications such as “Screentime” on Apple’s iPhone or “Time Well Spent” on Facebook should help to reduce online time. How good these actually work has not been investigated. It is of course possible that some of these new control features also reflect pressure from regulating bodies.

The researchers concluded by stating that it is time to critically reflect on the prevailing business model of ‘user data in exchange for app-use allowance’. Instead of using a service in exchange for data, it ultimately might be better to ban or regulate certain design elements in apps to come up with less addictive products. Instead, users could pay a reasonable fee for an app service.

Montag C et al. Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms and Freemium Games against the Background of Psychological and Economic Theories. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Jul 23;16(14). pii: E2612

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