Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms and Freemium Games against the Background of Psychological and Economic Theories (2019)

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Jul 23;16(14). pii: E2612. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16142612.

Montag C1, Lachmann B2, Herrlich M3, Zweig K4.


Currently about 2.71 billion humans use a smartphone worldwide. Although smartphone technology has brought many advances, a growing number of scientists discuss potential detrimental effects due to excessive smartphone use. Of importance, the likely culprit to understand over-usage is not the smartphone itself, but the excessive use of applications installed on smartphones. As the current business model of many app-developers foresees an exchange of personal data for allowance to use an app, it is not surprising that many design elements can be found in social media apps and Freemium games prolonging app usage. It is the aim of the present work to analyze several prominent smartphone apps to carve out such elements. As a result of the analysis, a total of six different mechanisms are highlighted to illustrate the prevailing business model in smartphone app development. First, these app-elements are described and second linked to classic psychological/economic theories such as the mere-exposure effect, endowment effect, and Zeigarnik effect, but also to psychological mechanisms triggering social comparison. It is concluded that many of the here presented app-elements on smartphones are able to prolong usage time, but it is very hard to understand such an effect on the level of a single element. A systematic analysis would require insights into app data usually only being available for the app-designers, but not for independent scientists. Nevertheless, the present work supports the notion that it is time to critically reflect on the prevailing business model of ‘user data in exchange for app-use allowance’. Instead of using a service in exchange for data, it ultimately might be better to ban or regulate certain design elements in apps to come up with less addictive products. Instead, users could pay a reasonable fee for an app service.

KEYWORDS: Facebook; Internet addiction; Internet use disorder; WhatsApp; smartphone addiction; smartphone use disorder; social media/messenger apps

PMID: 31340426

DOI: 10.3390/ijerph16142612