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Why teens are so addicted to their smartphones

The new iPhone. Marketplace looks into why teens are so addicted to their smartphones. GETTY

The new iPhone. Marketplace looks into why teens are so addicted to their smartphones. GETTY

Canadian teenagers could be on track to spend more than 9.5 years of their life staring at their smartphones. App designers are vying for that time and they're looking to our brains to make it happen.

When it comes to 'behaviour design,'one of the most popular techniques in a tech programmer's toolbox is 'variable reinforcement'or 'variable rewards.'For smartphones, variable rewards involve three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward. They can be habit-forming.

For example, a push notification is a trigger, opening the app is the action, and the reward is potentially a 'like'a 'share'of a message we've posted, a 'thumbs up,'bonus points.

These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in our brain, making us feel happy, possibly euphoric.

However, the rewards aren't predictable. We don't always get a like, a retweet or a share every time we check our phones, though we hope for them. And that's what makes our phone use compulsively.

App designers use other techniques to keep people using their social media apps. Some companies employ a score - a combination of the photo messages you send or receive. A score can feel like a reward for being active on the app. Teenagers can have scores into the millions.

Worrying to experts, including social workers, psychologists even some app designers themselves, is a technique known in the tech design world as 'loss aversion.'That can mean people keep engaging with their app even when it's not useful or they don't enjoy it anymore.

Another example is a 'streak'- the number of days in a row you message a friend. The message could be as meaningless as a picture of a foot, yet it's seen by the user as an obligation.

CBC Marketplace contacted several social media app companies - none would go on the record to talk about their design techniques.

If you can't put down your phone, you can't afford to miss this investigation. Tune into Marketplace tonight at 8 p.m. on CBC.