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, multiple times a day, his finger would gravitate to the little square icon.
To quit, he first tried going cold turkey. That didn’t work—it was too easy to get around. Next, he tried the function on his phone that let him set time limits on his apps. That didn’t work either, for the same reason.
“We’ve all been there,” Riedel, 27, says. “I started to question myself, like, ‘Why is this happening?’ And then of course, as an app developer, I tried to find solutions.”
The solution Riedel settled upon was simple: remove the element of instant gratification that makes opening social media apps so addictive. He designed an app that would activate whenever his finger clicked the Instagram icon, and force him to wait for about 10 seconds before continuing. During the intermission, the app would invite him to take a deep breath. Just by introducing that tiny element of friction, Riedel discovered, his social media use began to decline drastically.
“It’s fascinating to me,” Riedel says, “that such a small change can really impact our habits long-term.”
He uploaded the iOS app—which he called “one sec”—to Apple’s app store at the end of 2020, where it has now surpassed a quarter of a million downloads. This month, he 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.
James Lafa/Courtesy Frederik RiedelFrederik Riedel
What the research shows
The results aren’t just anecdotal. Over the course of six weeks, one sec can cut by 57% the number of attempts by the average user to open their app of choice, 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 deciding not to open the app when confronted by the breathing exercise; further reduction 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 U.S. teenagers say that they are using at least one social media app “almost constantly,” according to an August report by Pew Research Center. The most popular app among teens is YouTube, with TikTok and Instagram not far behind. Many teens, 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 teens feel they spend “too much” time on social media, and 54% say it would be either hard or very hard to “give up” their use of the apps entirely.
In that climate, an app like one sec—which helps wean users off social media rather than cutting it off entirely—is a quiet revolution. After two years of using one sec, 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, I only use them now if I have a purpose,” he says. “I have been able to establish a healthy relationship with social media.”
How it works
In the two years since Riedel first uploaded one sec to the app store, he has built out a raft 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 per year the app can do much more. The “pro” version lets you set limits on as many apps as you like, and it tells you how many times in the last 24 hours you have attempted to open each app. You can turn on the intention 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 stop yourself from getting 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 significantly more sparse right now, with no “pro” version and few additional features. Still, after using it for several weeks in an attempt to cure my Twitter addiction, the effects are clear as day. As I write these words, the app tells me I’ve only attempted to open Twitter six times in the last 24 hours—down from an embarrassing average of more than 20 in the first days after installing one sec.
How “one sec” handles privacy
Riedel says charging a yearly fee for the pro version means he will never have to resort to ads or monetizing user data to keep the app afloat – which fits well with his vision. “I want one sec to be the opposite of all these apps that I’m trying to fight,” he says. “I don’t want the user to look at ads while the intervention is happening, because that would completely destroy the effect.”
When you install one sec, you need to give it relatively wide-ranging permissions in your phone operating system necessary for it to interrupt other apps. In the hands of behavioral advertisers, that data could be quite lucrative. But that’s 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 that. Because they know the service is in return for money, not in return for data.”
Riedel distances himself from the hustler mentality that you often hear from self-help influencers, who sing the benefits of quitting social media in order to focus more on work or side-projects. Still, free from 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 that I gained back from Instagram, only to work,” he says. “But even if I watch the clouds for 10 minutes instead of scrolling for 10 minutes on Instagram, that helps me to recover, to reassess, to get new inspiration, new creativity and new energy. And then, whatever I’m doing, I just feel more energized and much better in general.”