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Featured Article – Digital Addiction

Making software and platforms that have engaging (but addictive) elements to them have become popular. However, is this really the route that businesses want to go down with their software?

Digital Addiction

‘Digital addiction’ is a controversial term that is used to broadly describe sets of compulsive behaviour which relate to the use of digital technology mobile phones, social media, and the Internet.

It is thought that a recent generation which has grown with the Internet and smartphones (many of whom have also grown up playing online games and turning to social media to satisfy psychological needs related to ‘self’) may be particularly susceptible to the tactics employed by (mainly consumer) software developers to engage them and keep their attention.

Statistics suggest that british adults check their smartphone devices every 12 minutes (Ofcom 2019) while 44 per cent of 5 to 16-year olds feel uncomfortable without a phone signal (Childwise), helping to illustrate our reliance on technology, but don’t necessarily indicate addiction.

As many psychology commentators would agree, addiction is widely regarded as an illness with a set of behavioural symptoms. There is also some evidence to suggest that there are differences in the prefrontal area of the brain itself, the part that is associated with remembering details, attention, planning, and prioritizing tasks, that may be partly responsible for the type of behaviour that is exhibited by those with a digital addiction disorder e.g. everyday life tasks taking a back seat to the Internet or other digital areas.

Not As Bad?

Ways in which digital addictions appear to attract a different perception to other addictions are that it provides social and connecting elements rather than isolating the person, it mainly involves legal activity (unlike purchasing illegal drugs), and is regarded in the public perception as being less harmful and therefore, ‘addicts’ don’t attract the same prejudices as drug addicts, gamblers or alcoholics.

Types of Addiction

Examples of different types of digital addiction include:

Phone addiction. This is where smartphone users overuse their phones to the point where it has a negative impact on their daily lives and, as such, could be described as a dependence syndrome and a clinical addiction.

Social media addiction. Spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or Snapchat (and more) is now the subject of research. The continuous physical checking of Facebook could be regarded as a sign of addiction and much has now been written about how a need for likes (approval from peers) and the pressure of wanting to appear to lead a life that is as ‘interesting’ as peers are some of the drivers.

Researchers have focused on how, when a social media user receives rewards in the form of likes and messages, this activates dopamine-producing areas of the brain causing dopamine levels to rise and the person to feel pleasure.  In this sense, excessive social media users have something in common with users of addictive substances.  Social media, therefore, provides multiple immediate rewards (attention from others) for minimal effort, leading the brain to ‘rewire’ itself based on this positive reinforcement, and making people desire likes, retweets, and emoticon reactions.

Internet addiction. Also called Compulsive Internet Use (CIU), Problematic Internet Use (PIU), or iDisorder, Internet addiction has been described as an impulse control disorder and can lead to a perceived blurring of the line between the real and virtual worlds. It can also lead some people into overspending through activities such as online shopping.

Making Software More Addictive

Social media and other online platforms and businesses compete for our time and attention. With this in mind, particularly with consumer rather than business-focused services, methods can be used to increase attention and engagement and to appeal to our innate enjoyment of play. One key example is gamification:


Gamification and leader-boards bring game design principles and mechanics to non-game environments and make technology inviting by encouraging users to carry out desired behaviours, showing the path to mastery, and by appealing to a natural need to compete.  The motivation of online rewards can take the form of points and badges.  Gamification is an example of what some consider to be an ‘addictive’ element of software.

One obvious way in which gamification feeds (an existing) addiction is with problem gamblers/gambling addicts who find that smartphones can exacerbate their gambling addiction by removing many of the barriers that would have limited their gambling offline. This, however, is business-to-consumer rather than business-focused software.

Business Software and Gamification

Although business-focused software can include gamification to give it a ‘fun’ element, and to encourage users to behave/change their behaviour in a certain way, it needs to be used intelligently and in a way that allows naturally less competitive people to stay engaged and opt-out of competitive elements where necessary.

Rather than simply using methods such as gamification to make users spend more time on certain software, many believe that business-focused software should be doing the opposite by enabling the user to be more productive.

Examples of how elements of gamification can work in a business software setting include:

– Ranking contact-centre staff by how many calls they complete.

– Staff having a software system to rate each other on how helpful they are e.g. being awarded points by colleagues.

Keeping The Focus

Ultimately, business software should be inclusive and enable greater productivity.  It can have a fun element that is in keeping with company culture but is unlikely to be successful or value-adding if it aims to be simply ‘addictive’.

Looking Forward

Good business software should involve creating innovative and engaging elements and can involve game elements that are positive motivators in the right direction according to the company’s/organisations aims, goals and culture. Other points to remember about how good (rather than just how addictive) business software can be made, and how business software-management can be improved include:

– Setting organisational time limits e.g. French companies with 50+ people must negotiate with staff over the responsibility to check emails outside working hours.   

– Pausing the delivery of emails to staff from managers outside work hours can also be helpful in relieving stress and improving effectiveness and efficiency.

– Giving staff easy-to-use rather than complicated software can prevent them from using their own (perhaps unauthorised) alternatives, stop them clinging to old/earlier versions, and can improve productivity.

– Including helpful, gentle nudging and prompting elements in the software to gently encourage behaviour (e.g. deadline warnings).


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