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Believe it or not, apps and digital games are actually designed to be addictive. They are digital Skinner boxes designed to keep you online and engaged—clicking and sharing away. Now, researchers are turning to game and app developers to help them develop programs for positive behavior modification, which is, in this case, to help people quit smoking. While we often think of apps and games as trivial—sort of cotton candy for the mind,—the truth is that developers have discovered they’re powerful motivational tools. These tools can be harnessed to change the world of addiction treatment in a bold manner. Such a tool is the SmartQuit app.

Psychiatrists from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington developed an app that helps people quit smoking. They borrowed the tools programmers use to make apps addictive and put them to work in helping people fight their smoking habits. Dr. Jonathan Bricker and Dr. Jaimee Heffner are psychologists and researchers who have always believed that smoking is not just a habit but an addiction that is even worse than heroin or cocaine. To address the problem, the two have turned their attention to how apps work. This step led to the creation of apps which are now used to help people stay healthy. The app called Smart Quit was released in August 2014.

Notably, further work is being done on the SmartQuit app by 2morrow, a Seattle startup. It is available to certain markets but is still being tested before it is released to the nation at large.

Using Apps to Modify Behavior

Bricker and Heffner chose to create the SmartQuit app because of the ubiquity of the smartphone. More than 75 percent of all Americans have smartphones. This fact can be a great help to stay in touch with those who need to quit. The app helps motivate users to avoid smoking and support them when they are badly craving a cigarette.

The SmartQuit app uses techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a form of behavior therapy that helps users recognize intense negative feelings, which include anxiety and nicotine cravings. It also incorporates Behavior Activation Therapy, which is normally used in treating depression. Along with ACT is a library of exercises that help the user resist cigarette temptation. The app helps users focus on something else that can motivate them, which includes providing exercises to help them control the urge to smoke.

a photo containing images of the SmartQuit app pages beside a hand holding a smartphone with its screen open to the app's logo
The SmartQuit app helps motivate and support users to avoid smoking when they are badly craving a cigarette!

SmartQuit App vs. Smoking Addiction

The SmartQuit app chooses a random exercise for a user to do when needed. It also offers push notifications to engage users. The team studied how to word the notification as well as the best time to push it. In fact, the researchers spent a lot of time studying apps and used the research to design the SmartQuit app. Although the psychologists could have used any other habit or addiction to test their app hybrid tool, they chose smoking addiction because it has a huge impact on people and society in general. Smoking is the leading cause of cancer, being the direct or indirect cause of one-third of all cancer cases. What is ironic is that it’s also a very preventable cause of cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 480,000 deaths in the U.S. due to smoking each year. Smoking-related illnesses cost Americans more than $300 billion annually, $170 billion of which are spent in direct medical care. The problem with smoking is not just deaths due to tobacco smoke and second-hand smoke. It also has adverse effects on people who have other addictions as well as mental health issues. It has been noted that heroin users are more likely to die of tobacco rather than a drug overdose.

The Bold Impact of the SmartQuit App

The SmartQuit app is a bold innovation that will further the cause of digital healthcare. What companies learn from digital and game development can be applied in many other areas. Next time you think it is just a game, or just an app, remember that all of these products are making huge strides in our understanding of behavior and learning. And that knowledge can have world-changing consequences.

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