If you go a few hours without checking your phone, odds are there will be a few notifications on the lock screen. The alert bubbles between Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter alone could number into the hundreds for some people.
Notifications let you know almost anything--someone shared or commented your post, someone liked your photo, "in case you missed it" tweets, so-and-so posted to Instagram for the first time in a while. It goes on and on.
Today's apps are now using notifications to ping you as many times as possible and even exaggerating the notification counts in the little red badges in iOS and the latest versions of Android. Many apps will find any reason possible to alert you and use anything it can find to inflate the numbers in the badges to get you to re-engage with the app. You'd think that it would desensitize people to alerts, but psychologically people crave the engagement on some level.
If we accidentally forget our phone or the battery dies, we might feel a pang of anxiety that we're missing something. What if someone calls or texts? What if an important Facebook message gets missed?
The app wants you to check and engage with it. Notifications sometimes benefit the user, but they always benefit the app and the company that runs it.
"Notifications help apps skew your worldview. They make you think that your phone is important and essential," Lifehacker reporter Beth Skwarecki wrote.
Skwarecki compares app notifications to a "super-addictive slot machine" that affects our brain chemistry.
Last year, Sean Parker, one of Facebook's founders, admitted that the company's creators anticipated the app would be addictive.
"It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," Parker said at an Axios event.
Parker went on to say that the developer's goal was to "consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible" through Facebook. The "like" button specifically was created to give what Parker called a "little dopamine hit" to keep them engaged. Parker resigned from Facebook in 2005.
The Guardian reported that dopamine inspires us to take actions to meet our needs and desires by anticipating how we'll feel after meeting them.
While dopamine is a bit more complicated than just a "reward" chemical. It relates to what we expect versus what we get, what scientist Wolfram Schultz called the "prediction error." Schultz claimed that what we consider a reward are things that are unexpectedly good.
Dopamine is also connected to addiction. Some drugs, like cocaine, drive dopamine levels, elevating the pleasure centers of the brain, and altering the perception of reward reinforcement.
If we apply Parker's comment about social media to Schultz's dopamine study, the facts seem to line up.
While we've come to expect notifications on our smartphones, they don't inherently trigger dopamine. But, if we look deeper, getting an "unexpectedly good" comment or number of likes would trigger a dopamine spike.
Social media companies release "tips" for digital wellness, but the notifications keep coming. It's not in their best interest for you to log less hours on an app.
But remember that all apps and devices have the option to customize notifications or turn them off. Most options can be found in your device's Settings or in the individual app's Settings. Be thoughtful about which ones you allow to send you alerts, and turn off the ones that abuse their notifications with too many pings or by inflating their badge counts.
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- App notifications are designed to keep the user engaged in the app. Some of them are maximizing the amount of pings they send to trigger extra user engagements, which users need to be aware of.
- Receiving notifications can trigger a dopamine spike, which might contribute to why apps like social media are addicting. Users should be aware that they can quickly and easily turn off notifications in Android and iOS settings.
- Over half of US teens have decided to limit their smartphone and social media use
- Facebook is creating a personal timer to curb your social app addiction
- YouTube's mobile app can now reduce notification spam and set reminders to take a break
- How Android 9's Digital Wellbeing tool helps control your app time
- Flipd app builds your tolerance for being off social media
- Apple helps you kick iPhone addiction with iOS 12 (CNET)
- Apple, Google have similar phone addiction approaches with iOS, Android (ZDNet)
- How AI became Instagram's weapon of choice in the war on cyberbullying (TechRepublic)