How our smartphones and social media keep us hooked

Las Vegas slot machines

08 Mar How our smartphones and social media keep us hooked

Smartphone usage is getting dizzyingly high. In March 2017, Ofcom reported that 18-24-year-old women were on their smartphones 88.5 hours a month, and the average for all ages and genders was about 65 hours. It’s not as if anyone wakes up in the morning with a determination to spend more time on their smartphone, or indeed access a social network within.

But if we’re not consciously determined to spend more time on our devices, then why exactly are we going back and getting absorbed for near three hours each day? Why is a worry about smartphone addiction on the rise? The key lies in phone and application designers attempting to get users hooked through creating user habits.

This approach is laid out by application designer Nir Eyal in his book Hooked and a supporting blog post ‘Variable Rewards: Want to Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy’ – at the heart of this is the concept of the ‘intermittent variable rewards’.

Slot machines

If you think about a one-armed bandit style slot machine, it wouldn’t be very exciting if you inserted your money, pulled the lever, and then the right symbols lined up and you got your money back – even if this would financially be a better outcome than spending much time in front of such a machine.

smartphone addiction

Instead, people are drawn to slot machines because they can provide the thrill of a reward by total chance. You pull the lever, you probably won’t win, but you could, and it’s more satisfying when you do. The win pays out money, but it also flushes dopamine into your brain, which feels good and can become addictive.

Icons on smartphone apps

Smartphones and social networks are filled with small intermittent variable rewards too. Let’s say you get a few Whatsapp messages from your friend. You don’t see it come in, but when you unlock your phone you see the Whatsapp icon has five awaiting messages. Five! Must have missed something important! So, you must click into the application to see. This is intermittent, because your friend’s unprompted messaging was not expected, and provides a reward because you are pleased that they’ve messaged you. The little icons on your apps are dangling you a digital carrot.

Dr Cal Newport compares social networks to slot machines in this Ted Talk. 


Icons are types of notification, but there are many other ways social networking attempts to lure you back. If you don’t opt out, then you’ll soon get bombarded by email notifications about any activity that takes place on the network. These will usually take the form of being intriguing enough without completely giving the game away: {Your Friend} has tagged you in a post, without just telling you what the post is. You click into it and it could well provide a reward.


Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all deploy likes to get repeat users. If you post a photo on Instagram, getting a like is most often a pleasing experience, and it is intermittent according to when your friends or other people are online. You may also get a notification about the like sent to your email.

The feed

Almost the entire act of navigating to any social network is an intermittent variable reward. If you just go because you want to check out what’s happening, the feed will present you with a random seeming collection of different content. Almost certainly, you will have a psychological reaction to some of this content, and you may well find some of it pleasing. It’s this loop that creates a habit – and a possible social media addiction.

There are many more ways that application designers try and get you to return day in, day out, and spend vast amounts of time on your smartphone, leading to the edges of smartphone addiction. Awareness of the issue is the first step in getting your time back in an offline world and having a digital detox. Be aware that smartphones and social networks are using tricks akin to slot machines to get you coming back – the addictive intermittent variable reward.

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