Reclaiming our Relationship with Apps. written in collaboration with Lisa Anne Floyd, PhD Student, Western University, and Dr. Karen Grose, Associate Partner, MindShare Learning.

This blog has been written in collaboration with Lisa Anne Floyd, PhD Student, Western University, and Dr. Karen Grose, Partner, MindShare Learning. Their first blog outlined examples, the impact and the implications of today’s emerging technologies. The second blog shared practical ways educators can introduce the application of new technologies to students in classrooms and schools. In this third blog of the series, they share ways that mobile phone apps engage users and suggestions to help students and educators reclaim their relationship with apps.

Reclaiming our Relationship with Apps

No matter the age, one of the primary goals of most mobile app developers is to keep users engaged for as long as possible. As such, apps are designed and developed to grab and sustain users’ attention. Some of the techniques employed by mobile app developers to manipulate users to interact with apps are based on observations, while others are informed by input from psychologists and research regarding human behaviour. Everything from the colour of icons, to the rate of notifications received, apps are created to spur a sense of urgency to check our devices repeatedly throughout the day. In this article, we discuss some of the techniques mobile app designers and developers utilize to keep users consistently active and how we as educators, with our students, can rethink our relationship with mobile devices.

It is no secret apps create psychological dissonance when it comes to our mobile devices. In fact, websites, streamed videos, and forums have been created for app developers to examine the best ways to keep users engaged. If our friends, family members and students are struggling to reduce usage, despite the best of intentions and constant reminders, there are many forces working against them.

Push Notifications: One of the most common features included in apps to keep users engaged are push notifications. Apps tend to default to have push notifications turned on and these notifications have proven to be very successful in retaining users’ attention. Users are alerted each time a friend is posting a live video or when the app has a suggestion of another person to follow. Disguised as actual interactions, in reality, they are mostly tricks to get users to look again. And apps don’t stop there -they purposely vary the rate of notifications because designers have learned if notifications are too predictable, users will not open apps as consistently.

Swiping to Refresh: Another feature frequently used in apps is to get users to swipe to refresh – the waiting animation included is meant to look and feel like a slot machine. Although apps have the ability to refresh content automatically, users feel like they have control when they swipe to see content. This feature has been shown to make users look at their social media more frequently. Apps also hold back content once in a while, so users return to swipe. This same “variable ratio schedule” is used in games – apps release new levels or additional time for users to play at various, unpredictable times throughout the day. This play on users’ preference for control is used in contrasting ways – developers make game play, such as battles, last for certain time periods, so users are aware of when to come back to see the result. Masters of behaviour, app developers seek and prefer control, however, in most cases, that control is an illusion. They are simply employing principles of human psychology.

Scroll Features: Endless content is another way app designers and developers keep users engaged. Storylines are displayed at the top and throughout apps, and video and music playlists are repackaged based on user interest. When users scroll, there is no end of primarily personalized content, and each video or image is displayed to entice users to click. In some cases, the user does not even have to click – videos are played automatically. Developers are counting on their algorithms to increase the probability users will subscribe, re-subscribe and continue using the app, sucking their time and attention.

Snap Streaks: One of the most popular apps used by youth is Snapchat. One of the most popular features within this app which was released in 2015 is Snap streaks. If you are unfamiliar with these – ask a teenager – whether they engage in streaks or not, they will be able to tell you what a Snap streak is. It is simple – friends will “snap” each other once per day within a 24-hour time period, and after three days of consistent snapping, a streak is established. Streaks are designed to be ongoing and turn Snapchat into a game. They encourage users to engage daily – a simple text message is not enough-it must include a photo or video. There are even websites that contain tips to help users maintain their streaks and provide lists of current record holders. If for some reason a user does not have access to their phone and their 24-hour period is almost up, we have personally observed the lengths some youth will go to maintain their streak by giving their password to a friend to keep their streak alive. Some critics ascertain these features put superficial value on friendships and causes stress for those compelled to keep up their streak, resulting in artificial interactions with friends.

What Might We Do to Take Back Control?

With so many ways apps are grabbing our attention, it’s important that users are aware of how they are being manipulated. Clearly, many apps are useful to our day-to-day lives, but some we install make money by sucking as much time out of us as they can. While we are both strong advocates for the use of technological devices in classrooms to support meaningful teaching and learning, to help others, including youth, to better understand how apps manipulate and to assist them in taking back control, here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the use of ethical apps, that might have a positive influence on humankind
    Model appropriate social media use
  • Instigate discussions about the ways we can cut down on our phone use – or at least use it more purposefully and in ways that will help, rather than hinder our learning
  • Re-organize apps into folders according to use
  • Disable push and maybe even all notifications to help reduce the number of times one feels compelled to check their phone
  • Set boundaries families, friends and educators might consider as “no-phone zones” such as at the dinner table or breaking the pattern of checking your phone immediately upon waking up in the morning.
  • As educators, we know our students come up with amazing creative solutions every day, especially when given the opportunity to research and collaborate. Let’s give them a chance again so we can learn from their ideas about how to manage these powerful devices.

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