How should brands react to digital ‘addiction’?

In recent years, technology companies have come under scrutiny for the ‘addictive’ nature of their products. While ‘addiction’ as a term is problematic, people are increasingly becoming aware of the effects that overuse of technology has. During downtime, we find ourselves mindlessly consuming content on social media, binge-watching Netflix, or browsing online for the latest deals. We have forgotten what it truly means to be bored, how to have a human conversation, or how to live without a mobile phone. While life without technology is not feasible for most of us, due to work and other commitments, there is a role that needs to be played by brands. We, Marketing Intelligence* at OMD EMEA, believe that brands can benefit from the integration of techniques that promote healthier relationships with technology, for those who desire it.

*Marketing Intelligence is made up of 30 people from different specialist services teams including our: research team, strategy team, business intelligence team, marketing sciences team, social intelligence and our marketing technology experts. These experts join the dots between the different competencies ensuring we have a holistic approach to insight, analytics and strategy for our clients. Our focus is on providing powerful insight and knowledge to our teams internally and to our clients with a view to ultimately having a positive impact on brand and business success.


Research shows that, on average, people check their mobile phone every 15 minutes. This figure becomes more frequent for teens, who, on average, spend around 9 hours a day online. However, while 72% of teens admit to checking for messages as soon as they wake up, 57% of parents admit to doing the same. And, while 72% of parents have noticed their child being distracted during a conversation due to mobile phones, 51% of teens have noticed their parents behaving in a similar way. Hypocrites aside, the consequences of compulsive use are grave. In the U.S., more than half of all adults with a driving licence have admitted to sending or reading a text whilst driving. Given that texting while driving is incredibly dangerous, it begs the question: what is causing us to act in irrational ways? Are humans to blame, or is there something inherently ‘addictive’ about mobile phones?


In the U.K alone, more than half of the population (58%) say that they cannot imagine life without their mobile phone. When separated from their mobile phone, more and more people are feeling anxious about it. The issue of mobile phone separation anxiety is so widespread that there is now a term for it, namely, ‘nomophobia’. Despite the common misconception, ’nomophobia’ is not linked to the inability to make or receive phone calls. Instead, ‘nomophobia’ is thought to be linked to our mobile phones being ‘’so advanced and personal to us that they’ve actually become an extension of ourselves’’. In short, mobile phones are an amalgamation of functionalities from devices that are important to us. Not only can we capture and store memories on these devices, but we can also access thousands of apps, keep in touch with loved ones and access a wealth of information at our fingertips.

As such, this increases our propensity to believe that mobile phones are somehow part of our extended selves. In turn, this leads to increased levels of ‘nomophobia’, ‘’by heightening the phone proximity-seeking tendency’’. When we spend too long away from our phones, our ‘’brain releases the hormone cortisol, a chemical that initiates a flight-or-fight response to danger’’. Whereas before, humans relied upon cortisol to keep them safe, today, it causes us to continuously check in. While ideas about operant conditioning are not new, links have only just been made between mobile phones and slot machines. This is due, largely, to unpredictable rewards, such as red notifications, likes or direct messages.


The best way to reinforce learning is to administer infrequent, random rewards. This is because dopamine – involved in motivating us to do something – responds positively to levels of unpredictability. Dopamine is a critical part of our brains composition – implicated not only in reward, but also seeking, thinking, moving and sleeping – that makes us feel inclined to act. Within our brains, there are four prominent dopamine pathways that pass on chemicals in the form of neurotransmitters. Of which, three of these are implicated with reward:

In daily life, willpower, control and restraint are all reliant on the above being fully operable. Increasingly, however, people are making links between too much screen time and shifts in reward processing. At a recent conference, the brains of teenagers with technology ‘addiction’ were examined. From which, key differences in reward circuitry were found, meaning that their risk of developing anxiety was significantly higher.


The concept of ‘instant gratification’ refers to the timely release of dopamine, that requires little to no effort. Given the widespread adoption of mobile phones, the majority of us now have access to instant gratification at the touch of a button. As a result, the availability of things has led to a sense of false fulfilment. When we receive a notification on our phones that could be from anyone and anywhere, we feel a rush of dopamine, due to the unpredictability. However, the feeling does not last, and thus, we are drawn into a cycle of repetitive reward seeking. With every reward, we feel compelled to seek out bigger and better rewards. To keep us scrolling, apps such as social media utilise this technique, by profiling users based on behaviour to ascertain which rewards will incur the maximum response.


When we receive abnormally large rewards, our brain struggles in terms of processing. This is because they go ‘’directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction’’. As a result, our willpower becomes diminished. Therefore, it can be argued that having instant gratification online can lead to a lack of motivation in real life. Why work towards a long-term goal, when we can attain similar feelings at our fingertips? Though, there is an opportunity for brands to utilise these findings for user benefit, in particular, with collaborative behavioural change interventions. When seeking to increase the frequency of positive messages sent on their anti-cyberbullying app, Dopamine Labs were able to generate an uplift of 167% in frequency, ‘’by controlling when and how often we sent them an animated gif reward’’.


While standalone software has existed for quite some time, brands have only just started to integrate elements of sensitive design into their products. Among the first were Google, Apple and Instagram, who unveiled a set of new features over the summer which seek to prevent user burnout. In May 2018, Google announced that their latest version of Android software has enhanced ‘Do Not Disturb’ settings. Within which, there is an automatic ‘Shush’ mode that reduces notifications and an inbuilt dashboard that details patterns of usage, including frequency of unlocking the screen. A month later, Apple unveiled their Digital Health software for iOS 12. Key features of which include Screen Time, which enables users to better track time spent on their device, as well as ‘Downtime’, which imposes limits on problematic apps. In November 2018, Instagram announced its ‘Your Activity’ feature, which enables users to track usage, set time restrictions and mute notifications. As increasing evidence is released that mental health is being put at risk, brands should seek to follow suit, with the integration of techniques that prioritise user wellbeing. If brands can promote healthy relationships between users and technology, users will be less likely to abandon their devices altogether.

For further information about the above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the Marketing Intelligence team: , ,


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Insights Executive, OMD EMEA, Marketing Intelligence

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