How Apps Keeps Us Hooked

digital media literacy digital safety digital well-being social media news Dec 27, 2023
How Apps Keeps Us Hooked

By Cristian Helu, Seasonal Public Relations Intern | Digital4Good


If there is one thing you cannot leave home without, what would it be? 


Did you say your phone?


Your smartphone provides a sense of comfort and safety. Whether you are eating dinner at home or in the middle of the dance floor at a birthday party, staying digitally connected with the world around us through social media apps on our phones is the norm. But, what makes this such a constant habit for us?


What Do You Mean “Hooked”?

Scientists still debate on the true possibility of being psychologically “addicted” to our mobile devices, but it is undeniable that these tech developers have crafted mind-tricking strategies to hook us from the start. While it may seem simple to avoid checking whether your Instagram story got likes or how many quotes your X post received, there are entire programming teams that come up with ways to have us constantly coming back for more.


Tricks of the App Trade



This viral platform has mastered the art of keeping us hooked. TikTok’s developers utilize “Hick’s Law”, which states that more options make it harder for users to choose and engage. TikTok limits options for users through the infinite scroll feature that is fueled by an algorithm that chooses the next content for you based on your following list, liked videos, and comments. The algorithm also formulates very specific advertisements for you, including the promotion of their very own “TikTok Shop” items. The hyper-personalization and convenience of these features are what send users into auto-pilot, trapping us for hours on end.


Other features include the “LIVE” page, allowing users to engage with live streaming TikTokers through comments, polls, and even sending “gifts” that cost various amounts of money. Getting acknowledged by livestream hosts for these engagements creates a positive feedback loop for consistent viewership and participation for increased feelings of self-worth and belongingness.



As one of the leading social platforms, this app is a prime example of being stuck in the loop. Instagram has different push notification features that will effortlessly lock us in to let us know who has posted, who is liking your posts, who is commenting on your posts, who is hosting a livestream or even suggesting who you should follow.


Instagram’s temporary 24-hour “Story” feature is another major addictive strategy. “Stories” will be the first feature that we recognize since they are on the top banner of the app and the automatic bender begins. The app intentionally lines the “stories” up by users you interact most with, the app’s automatic shift to the next relevant “story” keeps us glued to Instagram and prevents the fear of missing out (FOMO).



Formerly known as Twitter, this app uses a strategy known as “variable ratio schedule”, where actions are rewarded at random times. Similar to slot machines at the casino, users continue to browse the app and can’t predict when they’ll get rewarded with new content– just that they will at some point. The action of pulling down the top of the feed, seeing the loading icon, and hearing the “purr” sound as new posts load can have users on an instant gratification binge.



The concept of “streaks” has kept Snapchat users on their toes. Keeping score of how many days in a row users snap each other are what have us constantly checking this app, making sure to keep their “streak” alive by sending a snap at least once in 24-hours. If users do not make this deadline, the “streak” will die and they do not want to start the counter over or lose bragging rights so this strategy keeps us on our toes.



With almost 19 years of online presence, Facebook has continued to evolve its user engagement strategies. Countless features like “On This Day”, which shows your posts or photos that you’ve made on that exact day in past years and makes the app feel like a nostalgic memory album. It also notifies users of birthdays from their Friends list, prompting us to log on and send well-wishes. Like other platforms, Facebook’s endless scrolling feature that captivates users to mindlessly believe that this app is the optimal way to maintain their connections and interact with loved ones.


Don’t feel defeated by the hold of social media because we all fall into the scheme of it. But how do we limit our time spent on these platforms?


Tips to Take Control of Social Media

 Turn Off Notifications

 By silencing the notifications for these apps on your phone, you are less likely to feel drawn to check and engage with them.


Out Of Sight, Out of Mind

 If you have obligations like chores or work to do at home, putting your phone in a drawer or in another room can help you focus on the tasks at hand. You can take a step further and even temporarily delete the apps from your phone until you have completed your priorities.


Set Boundaries

 Create a set of reasonable boundaries for your screen-time. This could look like delegating specific times for phone usage (i.e. after dinner, certain hours per day) or areas (i.e. allowed in the living room, not allowed in bed).


Be A Role Model

 Lead by example for your teens or your peers by demonstrating rational screen time habits. The influence we have on those around us is greater than you think.


Be Present

We can get so caught up with online connections that we lose connection with real world experiences and relationships. Be sure to put your phone down, invite family for conversation over dinner, go on that hike trip with your friends, and smell the roses!


Wrapping It Up

Social media is a powerful tool that keeps us connected with the world, but it is important to make sure that we are using it responsibly. Whether you are a parent who loves to post on Facebook or a teen who scrolls on X, let’s make sure that we are informed of how apps keep us hooked and build healthy online habits. 📱🔑


For more digital safety tips and digital citizenship content, connect with us on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook.




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