This App Could Fix Your Social Media Addiction

This App Could Fix Your Social Media Addiction

Frederik Riedel was addicted to Instagram. It was the first COVID-19 lockdown and, stuck at home in Berlin, Riedel knew he was spending too much time on the app. He knew that he felt worse after using it than before. And yet, several times a day, his finger would gravitate towards the small square icon.

To quit, he first tried cold turkey. It didn’t work—it was too easy to get around. Next, he tried the feature on his phone that allowed him to set time limits on his apps. It didn’t work either, for the same reason.

“We’ve all been there,” says Riedel (27). “I started questioning myself, like, ‘Why is this happening?’ And then of course, as an app developer, I tried to find solutions.”

The solution Riedel settled on was simple: remove the element of instant gratification that makes opening social media apps so addictive. He designed an app that would trigger when his finger clicked on the Instagram icon, forcing him to wait about 10 seconds before continuing. During the break, the app would invite him to take a deep breath. Just by introducing that small element of friction, Riedel discovered, his social media use began to drastically decrease.

“It’s fascinating to me,” says Riedel, “that such a small change can really affect our habits in the long term.”

He uploaded the iOS app – which he called “one sec” – to Apple’s app store in late 2020, where it has now passed a quarter of a million downloads. This month, it released browser extensions that bring the same experience to the web. An Android version is currently in beta mode, with an official release coming soon.

Frederik Riedel (James Lafa/Courtesy Frederik Riedel)

Frederick Riedel

James Lafa/Courtesy Frederik Riedel

What the research shows

The results are not just anecdotal. Over the course of six weeks, one second can reduce the number of attempts by the average user to open their app of choice by 57%, according to a scientific study of 280 participants from earlier this year. (The study, by behavioral psychologists at the Max Planck Institute and Heidelberg University, is currently under peer review for publication in the PNAS Journal.) Part of this reduction came from users choosing not to open the app when browsing through the breathing exercise is not confronted; further reductions came from their reduced number of attempts to even open the app in the first place after six weeks of use.

Social media addiction is a growing problem. A full 35% of American teenagers say they use at least one social media app “almost constantly,” according to an August report by Pew Research Center. The most popular app among teenagers is YouTube, with TikTok and Instagram not far behind. Many teenagers, especially girls, blame Instagram for exacerbating their poor self-esteem, according to internal company documents disclosed by a whistleblower in 2021. According to the Pew survey, 36% of teenagers feel they spend “too much” time on social media, and 54% say it would be either difficult or very difficult to completely “give up” their use of the apps.

In that climate, an app like One Second — which helps wean users off social media rather than cutting it off entirely — is a quiet revolution. After two years of using One Second, Riedel says, his digital life has been transformed. While he still uses Instagram, he no longer finds himself opening it automatically. “When I open social media apps, which I still do, now I only use them if I have a purpose,” he says. “I was able to establish a healthy relationship with social media.”

How it works

In the two years since Riedel first uploaded One Second to the app store, it has built out a series of additional features. The core version of the app — which lets you set limits on a single app — will always be free, he says, but for $10 a year, the app can do a lot more. The “pro” version lets you set limits on as many apps as you want, and it tells you how many times in the last 24 hours you’ve tried to open each app. You can turn on the intent tracking feature – which forces you to give a reason for opening the app before it lets you continue. You can set a reminder that will go off five minutes after you open the app, if you want to avoid being sucked in. And you can write your own list of “healthy alternatives”—like reading a book or texting a friend—as inspiration for things to do instead of scrolling.

The Android version of the app is currently considerably sparser, with no “pro” version and few additional features. Still, after using it for a few weeks in an attempt to cure my Twitter addiction, the effects are clear. As I write these words, the app tells me I’ve only tried to open Twitter six times in the past 24 hours—down from an embarrassing average of more than 20 in the first few days after installing one second.

How “one sec” handles privacy

Riedel says charging an annual fee for the pro version means he never has to use ads or monetize user data to keep the app running — which fits well with his vision. “I want one second to be the opposite of all these apps I’m trying to fight,” he says. “I don’t want the user to be looking at ads while the intervention is happening because that would completely destroy the effect.”

When you install one second, you have to give it relatively wide-ranging permissions in your phone’s operating system that are necessary for it to interrupt other apps. In the hands of behavioral advertisers, that data can be quite profitable. But this is not Riedel’s game: all data is stored on the user’s device. “I want to build the best tool for the user, not suck all the data from the user,” he says. “Most users appreciate it. Because they know the service is in exchange for money, not in exchange for data.”

Riedel distances himself from the hustler mentality you often hear from self-help influencers, who extol the benefits of ditching social media to focus more on work or side projects. Still, free of his social media addiction, Riedel says his mental health has improved and he feels more energetic and creative. “I don’t take all the time I got back from Instagram just to work,” he says. “But even if I look at the clouds for 10 minutes instead of scrolling Instagram for 10 minutes, it helps me to recover, to rethink, to get new inspiration, new creativity and new energy. And then, whatever I do, I just feel more energetic and generally much better.”

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Write after Billy Perrigo at [email protected]

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