Where tech aligns

The Downfall of Healthy Addictions

Self-improvement be damned, apps like Duolingo are still designed to make you anxious.

You’re in the middle of a conversation. Your friend seems to be anxiously looking at their phone, their eyes glazed over as you speak. A flash of the time makes their eyes widen, and their hands shoot over to their device. 

“Hold on,” they say. You fall silent as they swipe their screen awake. “I can’t let my streak end.”

But your friend doesn’t snap a picture, hoping not to end their streak with their digital best friend on Snapchat. Instead, a small, friendly owl greets them as they attempt to speak basic German to please him so as not to earn his sadness. 

Duolingo has been around since 2012, created by then Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn and his student Severin Hacker, with the goal of providing a language learning app that was free to use so that anyone could gain the economic advantages of knowing multiple languages. Von Ahn, a native Guatemalan whose first language was Spanish, believed that he could attribute his success to being taught English as a child. Before creating the empire that Duolingo is today, von Ahn sold two businesses to Google, both of which are still utilized by the company today. But Duolingo remains von Ahn’s passion project. 

The app has been steadily growing since its inception, but over the course of the past two years, the user base has dramatically increased. Duolingo use increased to an all-time high shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new users growing by 101 percent in just the month of March 2020. While it may be easy to blame that growth on the period of isolation that began in March following government restrictions, Duolingo continued to see positive change throughout 2020 and 2021. The fourth quarter of 2021 brought records of monthly and daily active users. 

But not all language learning apps experienced that same period of sharp growth. What makes Duolingo different? It all starts with a small owl named Duo who pops into your inbox crying every time you miss a lesson. Couple Duo with a wealth of gamification tactics, and you’ve got a recipe for an engaged, addicted audience, all trying to keep their streaks going and prevent Duo from crying. 

Duolingo utilizes negative emotional appeals that make you want to do better as a student of a new language. These advertisements typically play on four emotions: sadness, anger, fear, and guilt. Duolingo relies on guilt appeal to encourage you to keep that streak going. Typically, negative emotional appeals play on the user’s empathy. For many non-profits, these advertisements are a crucial part of getting donors to re-engage. Suppose you see a message in your inbox from your local aquarium telling you that they may have to discontinue their work of saving those cute little otters without your donation. In that case, that’s a guilt appeal that will make you feel bad for being the reason those otters suffer. But in the case of Duolingo, instead of a tangible creature you’re harming by inaction, it’s an icon in your phone that you’ve become connected to, thanks to Duo’s design. 

Duo has undergone several changes since his inception, but the biggest came in 2019 when he was given a far more dynamic face than his predecessors. Duo’s appearance is meant to get you even more attached by allowing Duo to have more expressive animation, whether he be looking at you with love in his eyes or dejected tears spilling over. Duolingo’s A/B testing proved that the current iteration is more likely to encourage users to come back to the app, down to the number of tears he cries when he pops into your inbox after you skip a few lessons, making for a more efficient guilt appeal-based advertisement.

The commercial use of the guilt appeal doesn’t always work. High-guilt advertisements can actually increase a user’s anger levels, causing an adverse reaction to the brand. Perhaps this is why there are so many memes dedicated to mocking Duolingo’s advertising strategies, ones that go so far as to suggest that Duo will take drastic measures if someone breaks their streak. 

But it’s clear that Duolingo’s strategy is working well enough. As of 2019, Duolingo’s next-day retention rate was fifty-five percent, a significant increase from 2012, when the rate was only thirteen percent. It’s worth noting that between 2012 and 2019, Duo underwent two redesigns, with each one happening so as to make him more expressive and, as Duolingo’s spokespeople have said themselves, pathetic.

But is Duolingo worth the guilt? Duolingo bills itself as an app that will help you learn another language. According to Duolingo’s in-house study conducted in 2020, beginner users’ reading and listening proficiencies are comparable to those of university students. Though this oft-cited research seems to suggest that Duolingo does what it promises to do, other studies have found otherwise. Experts have long claimed that, while you may learn vocabulary with Duolingo, your skill level will be more similar to that of machine translation. And anyone who has attempted to have a conversation using only Google Translate knows that’s insufficient. Duolingo’s methods rely upon memorization, instead of application. Particularly when users become more advanced in their chosen language, they’ll be more likely to find Duolingo’s strategy insufficient. What you do learn will be stilted and lack the kind of conversational elements one would actually hear spoken by native speakers.

As a whole, current studies leave much room for debate in terms of just how effective Duolingo is. Although most studies report a positive impact on language skills from the use of Duolingo, sample sizes in these studies are relatively limited and were not controlled for confounding variables. Users have overall reported enjoying the gamification aspect of learning a language, but the app lacks certain elements that would make it better for more advanced learners. It is currently short in grammatical explanations that could help a user understand why their answer may not have been sufficient. It also lacks more ways to test productive skills, like writing and speaking, which are crucial for those who want to become fluent. Although Duolingo discussion boards can help users to speak with and learn from more native speakers, as a whole, users stick to the central aspect of the app, the lessons. Social engagement has been shown to be one of the best ways to learn a language, something that Duolingo does not prioritize, though Duolingo does fall under the category of a social media app.

Duolingo’s gamification and emotional appeals have been mirrored across many social media platforms, though it’s easy to compare one in particular. For many using Duolingo, losing a streak is akin to losing all their hard work. As the clock counts down to the end of the day, you can count on a Duolingo user being on their phone to ensure they get in the amount of learning they promised Duo they would engage in each day. This action is not dissimilar to Snapchat’s use of Snapchat Streaks, which began in 2015. A 2020 study found that, although many adolescents claim that Snapchat Streaks do not hold any weight, users feel a sense of emergency when their streak is threatened, such as by not having access to a phone or WiFi. Snapchat Streaks are billed as a way to essentially prove your friendship with the person on the other end. If that streak is lost, what does that mean for your relationship? Like how Duo’s tears manipulate your emotions, Snapchat’s advertising utilizes negative emotional appeals, making you want to prove that your friendship is worth sending a quick picture every day.

Duolingo gets billed as addictive, just like Snapchat and other forms of social media do. But unlike Snapchat, Duolingo is treated as a healthy addiction. Social media addiction is more than overuse – it’s when that overuse becomes a negative influence. For instance, Facebook addiction is associated with depression, anxiety, and insomnia, while it also diminishes academic performance and well-being. Considering that, at the very least, Duolingo increases academic performance instead of decreasing it, Duolingo would be regarded as a healthier addiction than other social media platforms. 

But not all of the consequences of Duolingo are dissimilar to social media addiction. Duolingo’s overreliance on guilt appeals can lead to decreased self-esteem. The goal of these appeals is to make you feel bad enough about yourself for hurting Duo (and by extension yourself for not studying the language you said you would study) that you’ll log right into Duolingo. Self-esteem is another casualty of social media addiction. In the case of many social media platforms, we may feel a self-esteem boost through our own cultivation of our public profile, but we ultimately take a hit through comparison to others. We feel that our lives are not as fulfilling as the carefully curated selection of greatest hits that the people we follow share online. Although Duolingo and other social media platforms have different ways of affecting our self-esteem, they both affect self-esteem nonetheless.

While Duolingo may be a healthier addiction than other forms of social media, it’s worth considering if a for-profit application can ever fully exist as simply a helpful tool for users. Duolingo is more beholden to its bottom line and its shareholders than to the people to which it’s trying to teach a language. If Duolingo simply had a streak feature to encourage more users to learn daily, then it wouldn’t feel the need to make a Streak Freeze available for purchase. But Duolingo, like any for-profit company, is required to make a profit, even if those methods may be at the user’s expense. And as many have noted before, those little ways of increasing income, like getting users reliant on Streak Freezes, contribute to the overall feeling that you’re not really learning anything, though the game aspects of Duolingo are rewarding you anyway. If you’re still addicted to maintaining your streak but not learning anything, is Duolingo truly a healthy addiction?

Many apps utilize habit-forming tendencies to encourage your reliance on them. A freemium game may send you “free” coins if you have not used it in a while, making you want to open it up and spend that fake money. Or a social media app may send you a notification about a loved one’s birthday that you, if you’re being honest with yourself, probably would have forgotten if it hadn’t reminded you. That notification encourages you to log in, say “Happy birthday,” and then scroll around until you forget why you logged on in the first place. These are triggers for your addiction. Those without addictive tendencies may be able to ignore the messages, but those who do have those issues will be on their phones in an instant. Those little advertisements with Duo crying about you not logging onto Duolingo and practicing Spanish are triggers too. While one could suggest that those triggers are not equal, Duolingo’s goal with those messages is still to create engaged, daily users who will ideally turn into paid subscribers. 

Duolingo is only one of several apps that use addictive strategies to create what are considered healthy habits, like studying a new language. Some apps encourage you to work out every day, drink water, and meditate, which all fall under the category of actions that are generally good for you. But the overuse of any app, coupled with the app creator’s profit-driven goals, can form a recipe that’s healthier for the company than it is for the user. While Duolingo may be beneficial to language learning, maintaining your streak is not likely to turn you into a fluent speaker. It may, however, mess with your sense of worth, especially when you become concerned over Duo’s animated tears. If you cannot get through a day without going onto Duolingo and feel a sense of panic at the thought of your streak ending, you may have become addicted to making that owl happy. And there’s no such thing as a truly healthy addiction.