Technology can be addictive. I got to a point where I felt like I needed to check my phone even though I’d only checked it five minutes before. While I knew that didn’t make sense, I still checked it. I was frustrated with myself. But what I didn’t know was that the feeling I was having was well-designed and predictable. Tech companies pay for us to develop app addiction.
While Dopamine Labs typically designs apps to be addictive, the company also created an app called Space - Because You Need a Breather to combat app addiction. This past week, I gave it a shot and talked to Matt Mayberry, Dopamine Labs’ head of business development, about how Space works.
How Apps Get Us Addicted
Dopamine Labs uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to help tech companies design apps and software. Essentially, the goal is to make you want to use technology as often as possible. The API (an app-intelligence program) gives users the “perfect burst of dopamine to keep them hooked,” says Mayberry. Dopamine Labs’ co-founder Dr. Combs holds a PhD in neuroscience.
One example of how Dopamine Labs' API works is Instagram likes. When you post a photo on Instagram, in reality, most of your likes come in at about the same time. But Instagram is designed to hold back likes. The app only shows them to you when you’ve been away from Instagram a while. This way, you keep coming back for more.
“It’s mischievous," says Mayberry, "but it’s also brilliant.”
How Space Fights App Addiction
One night, the team at Dopamine Labs began to discuss “what it would be like if someone built an anti-dopamine.” In other words, what would happen if the team built an app that stopped the addictive dopamine rush? What they came up with was Space – Because You Need a Breather, an app that fights app addiction.
Space reverses the work Dopamine Labs typically does, re-wiring your instant gratification sensors to not go off every time you check an app. Anti-dopamine is simple: Instead of giving you instant gratification when you check an app, it makes you wait for a brief pause. Just this moment of waiting decreases the addictive effect of instant gratification you typically get when you see another flood of likes. In effect, instant gratification is being replaced with a moment of mindfulness.
My Week with Space
When I got Space – Because You Need a Breather, the app allowed me to choose certain apps or websites I wanted space from. I chose my email, Facebook, and Instagram. Then, every time I clicked one of those apps, a screen of deep space popped up and asked me to “take 1 deep breath" before I started.
That’s literally all the app does. It makes you wait a little longer than you typically would to use an app. Because you’re forced to wait for one deep breath (sometimes more), your instant gratification sensors don’t get the happy rush they’re used to. After using the app multiple times with this pause, you brain will stop expecting the instant gratification. As a result, ideally, you’ll begin to use the app less.
One thing I noticed is that, depending on how often I used an app, the breathing pause would become even longer. This is because artificial intelligence automatically adjusts the wait time, depending on how addicted you are to an app. The more you use an app, the longer it forces you to wait.
While the app hasn’t made a drastic change in my thinking or feeling about my app use in just one week, I do feel less emotionally dependent on Instagram likes. Maybe part of this is knowing that a computer program is withholding likes from me, and that ultimately, the number doesn’t matter.
Using Tech for Good
According to Mayberry, Dopamine Labs is “one of the few if not the only company using our technology for good.” It’s Dopamine Labs’ goal to help us modify our behavior in positive ways. Space was originally blocked from the Apple app store because Apple didn’t want to sell anything that made people use their phones less. Then, as Mayberry puts it, Apple "decided they wanted to be on the right side of history.” Now, it offers the app Space.
Kicking app addiction can be hard – and it makes sense, considering how much money goes into paying companies like Dopamine Labs to keep us hooked. On my laptop, I found myself changing tabs to go to different websites rather than breathing one breath with the app because I still needed that instant gratification. Hopefully, continuing to use Space – and taking more moments of mindfulness – will help me snap out of that. I've found one new app addiction, but I think it's a good one.