Parental control apps.

5 Features That Keep Kids Hooked on Apps and What Parents Can Do

by Screen Time Team on 11/09/2019

In the 40s and 50s, psychologist B.F. Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, better known as the “Skinner box.” You’ve likely heard of it: A rat is put in the box, and if it hits a lever, it gets a food pellet. The rat, over time, does nothing but work the lever. And while we’re more intellectually complicated than rats, social media and apps use similar techniques to keep kids and teens hooked. Here are five app features parents should look for, and how to manage them.

1. Push Notifications

Apps are desperate for your attention, and push notifications are a useful way of getting it. Even if you disable the pings and buzzes many notifications set off, they can still light up your screen, drawing your attention. Fortunately, notifications are under your control. For apps that aren’t crucial, you can simply shut them off. For notifications you find useful, you can configure them to only collect on your screen, and to avoid seeing them, put your phone with the screen down.


Facebook is reportedly considering doing away with Likes, or at least the Like count, and that’s probably a good thing. But Likes and similar features also touch off the brain’s reward center: we like attention, because of course we do. We’re all human. The best way to control this is to stay off social media in the first place. 

If that’s not an option, you can still set strict hours for when and how your kids can use it. Also, explain to children the difference between sharing news friends and family may care about and be interested in (which is a good use of social media) and sharing content to get attention.

3. Tagging

Tagging can be useful in the sense that it can inform members of a group event who “Jim” was, although it’s good etiquette to always ask people first before you tag them in a photo. And it can be useful for drawing attention to important posts. However, tagging’s dark side is that it can be abused to draw people into unrelated posts, keeping them on social media longer. The best way to deal with tags is to avoid social media that allows tagging, or to limit your time on sites that do.

Girl looking at her phone.

4. Gamification

This is often a buzzword, but it really just means making apps interactive in simple, fun ways. Apps might ask you to answer questions by swiping left or right, for example. If you know an app uses these techniques, the best thing to do is to simply not download it in the first place. It’s also important to be aware of times when these techniques sneak into non-gaming apps. For example, many dating apps try to “gamify” their content. And if your kids play age-appropriate games online, you can be sure that gamification has been dialed up to keep them playing.

5. Tying Apps To Other Apps

If you’ve ever tried to fully delete Facebook, you know it’s a lot harder than it should be. Often apps will work themselves into our lives by tying into other apps, either to share information or to require you to have an account on one app to use another. This keeps you from cutting off apps completely. But there are ways to lower the temptation to use “addictive” apps. If nothing else, you can remove the icon from the screen so that using them requires accessing the phone’s list of apps.

The first step to keeping your children from being hooked on apps is to understand the techniques app creators employ to keep them engaged. Additionally, education, parental control apps, and common sense make up the best defense against the addictive qualities of apps. To learn more about healthy screen usage and how Screen Time can help your kids achieve it, we invite you to try it for free.

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