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Can we ‘outsmart’ smartphone addiction by using it to develop effective health apps?

Are you guilty of repeatedly checking your phone 24/7? Our new blog explores what makes them so addictive and how understanding this may help us develop more effective health apps.
Around 11% of the population in Western countries suffer from some form of technology addiction, reported Metro UK, and smartphone addition is one of the most common and dangerous for our health. However, there might be something to learn from the causes of addiction that can be relevant to develop effective health apps that have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.

Researchers are only now discovering the symptoms and the effects of constantly checking our smartphones and not a day goes by when we don’t read an article about how being constantly connected is bad for our health and modern technology is killing us.

Staying connected to the office 24/7 ‘is linked to high stress levels and heart disease’ according to a study published this year; parents checking their phones too often could result in poor child behaviour, says the journal of Child Developmentone in three British adults check their phones while eating, watching TV, in the middle of the night and within 5 minutes of waking, resulting in sleep deprivation and rows with partners.

Funnily enough, there is a health app to fight smartphone addiction! It’s called Moment, and it tracks how often and for how long we use our smartphones. For a fee, it will suggest ways to reduce screen time.

Smartphones seem to be the cause of and the solution to all our problems. As usual, balance is key: technology can have negative effects if abused, but it has the potential to radically simplify our life and even make a positive impact on people’s health.

Most health communications programmes now encompass the use of a digital tool, however effective health apps have proven difficult to develop. Drop outs and sporadic and incorrect use are among the most common problems. Is there a way to learn from smartphone addiction to improve adherence?

What makes smartphone addictive? They tap into primal needs and enhance the users’ ability to fulfil them.

Fear of missing out. People check their phone because there is always something happening and they don’t want to risk losing any of the action. Some of the most successful apps now leverage heavily this factor, generating compulsive content consumption in the viewers: both Snapchat and Instagram Stories allow users to upload pictures and videos throughout the day, but everything is deleted within 24 hours. Health apps developers should consider ways to provide fresh, original content that is exclusive for this channel to guarantee daily returning users and longer dwelling time.

Challenges and instant rewards. Some of the most addictive apps challenge users and deliver instant gratification and rewards for their actions. Whether it is in the form of points, badges, challenges, leader boards, likes or visual effects, effective health apps find ways to implement a degree of gamification and social validation to reward patients for their behaviour and entertain as well as inform.

Feel unique and connect with others. Social networks and messaging apps – by far the most used apps on smartphones – allow people to have personal profile, but also feel part of a community, meet with others and chat. When creating a health app, it can be beneficial to find ways to tailor the experience to the user – with personal profiles, avatars, personalised journeys – and build a community around these users so that the patients can motivate themselves, learn from each other and feel part of a group.

Become part of a routine. People check the weather in the morning, the news during the commute and perform bank operations or shop at night, feeling more informed and empowered. If we want health apps to be used more often, we need to think about what is their function and space during the day: does the app help users routinely? Is there a natural moment when patients could easily perform the task requested? Do users need to be reminded with emails or push notification? How much of the activity is it possible to automate? 

Not all these aspects might be relevant for your campaigns and there are definitely other causes of smartphone addiction. Why can’t you put down the phone? Which health apps do you find useful? Share in the comments! 

-Written by Federico M.

4th September 2017



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