The Beanfee Team
· 5 min read
Why are Snapchat streaks so addictive?

Most individuals can recognize having felt a need to pick up their phone every other minute. With the average person spending 3.25 hours a day on their phone and checking it 58 times, smartphones have become a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives. In fact, this need is not surprising, considering most games and social media apps are designed to make people feel that way. Their design is supposed to foster dependence and make users feel the need to constantly check their phones.

By using techniques based on well-known behavioral principles, the same techniques that make slot machines so addictive, social media use can start to resemble an addiction. People can experience anxiety and physiological withdrawal-like symptoms when separated from their smartphones and even so-called phantom vibrations, the sensation that one’s smartphone is vibrating when, in fact, it is not.

Research seems to suggest that internet and video game addiction might be supported by similar neural mechanisms underlying drug abuse. Because of such findings, internet gaming disorder was included as a condition requiring further study in the most recent taxonomic and diagnostic tool of the American Psychiatric Association.

Various design elements contribute to the addictiveness of social media platforms. One of their key characteristics is the unpredictability of what happens within them. Social media platforms are full of intermittent rewards, such as likes, messages, views, etc., that keep individuals hooked and induce them to come back for more. Psychological research has long established that timing of reinforcement is paramount to its effect on behavior. The way behavior is reinforced influences how fast it is learned, the rate of responding, and how long it continues if reinforcement ceases.

When behavior is intermittently reinforced, as on various social media platforms and video games, rates of responding are stable and high and the behavior is very resistant to discontinuation of the reinforcement. Checking one’s phone is not reinforced every time, as sometimes there are no new notifications awaiting or nothing interesting to see. Every now and then, however, the act of picking up one’s phone is reinforced when someone likes one’s photo, shares a post, sends a message, etc. The possibility of these random and unpredictable rewards is an extremely strong motivator that keeps people compulsively checking their phone and coming back for more.

Social media platforms have at their disposal a big bag of tricks based on psychological research

These general principles of behavior are also at work in popular game elements, e.g., points and badges, and consequently, in various gamified products and apps. Gamified products use game design elements in non-game contexts to make the product more enjoyable, motivating, engaging and therefore, often more addictive. A good example of an addictive feature are Snapchat streaks. Users can gain streaks on Snapchat by exchanging snaps for several consecutive days. They must send and receive at least one snap from the same user within a 24-hour period, otherwise the streak will be lost, thereby making sure that people return every day.

When the streak is at risk of disappearing, an hourglass icon appears to remind users to keep up their streak. Streaks are an efficient way of making an app addictive as it ensures that people use it daily. Children and young people have been known to go to great lengths to maintain their streaks, for instance starting every day with a snap to their friends or giving their account credentials to friends so they can keep up the streak if they are unavailable to do so.

Young people commonly share their Snapchat accounts to maintain their streaks

Losing one’s streak is so upsetting for people that Snapchat even has a special form on their website for users who have lost their streak and want to recover it, an indication of just how addictive streaks have become.

When a streak has been established, several psychological factors come into play that help maintain the streak. Users are rewarded with points, i.e., a higher streak score, for coming back each day which, in turn, reinforces the behavior. More importantly, users are motivated by their fear of losing the streak. By sending a snap every day, the streak is not lost and the behavior is therefore reinforced.

Research has shown that people tend to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains, a phenomenon known as loss aversion. Even though keeping up the streak has become tiresome, the thought of losing it looms larger than the gains of not having to maintain the streak.

The more we invest, the more likely we are to continue

As their streak score grows, users are also more inclined to persist in sending snaps every day. The more that people invest in something, whether it be effort, time, or money, the more likely they are to continue the behavior. This has been called the sunk cost fallacy, as the cost has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Because users have invested time and effort in maintaining the streak, they are likely to carry on with it. Otherwise, all the time and work spent on it has gone to waste.

By introducing gamified features, such as streaks and badges, apps and products can thus be made to effectively support repetition of behavior. Due to the addictive potential inherent in gamification, questions have been raised about the use of its elements and techniques as people worry about the effects on the main demographic of these products, children, and young people. However, it is important to note that the general principles of behavior that are at work in gamification have been used for decades with great success in various settings, such as schools and hospitals, to help individuals change their behavior.

Gamification can also be used to implement positive behavioral change

The features that designers deliberately use to increase repetitive use can therefore also be used to engage people and successfully implement positive behavioral change. Indeed, gamification has increasingly been used by apps to improve learning, health related behavior, wellbeing and more.

Beanfee is a platform based on gamification that is designed to support behavior modification. By incorporating various gamification elements derived from behavioral research, Beanfee aims to provide a platform for behavior modification with a strong empirical grounding that motivates and maintains user engagement.

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