The Power of Streaks

Pete Brown
Pete Brown // February 6, 2017

Are apps like Snapchat gamifying their use or creating a friendship scoreboard?

I drive my 8th grade daughter to school every day, and have done it for years. I learned to treasure the few minutes as an opportunity to check in, daughter-to-dad style. This year, though, the conversation is definitely down, because she uses the ride to school to “keep up her streaks” on Snapchat.

We’re just about a year in with her having Snapchat, a decision I struggled with (and documented in episode 2 of the Mindset Digital podcast—still my favorite). Her Snapchat score in that time has soared to over 45,000, which I am assured by the office millennials reflects a pretty intense year of snapping.

But her score doesn’t matter to her as much as her streaks. On Snapchat, you build streaks by snapping a friend every day and having them snap you back—a fire icon and running tally of days appears next to your friend’s name. My daughter is up to 224 days with her friend Abby. Her streak with Allison is lower, because Allison had the audacity to go to a “no phones” summer camp last year, and it cost her the  streak.

In our house, phones are a privilege, and sometimes my kids lose this privilege as a logical consequence of their choices. And while they’re up for enduring the time without the phone, the prospect of losing their Snapchat streaks is mind-blowingly unacceptable. Seriously. They start up “can I just keep my streak” negotiations immediately, and desperation sets in quickly. It’s the most powerful motivator I’ve had since the days I used to threaten to call Santa. 

So what’s really going on here?

From one perspective, Snapchat is gamifying interactions between friends. Each time a streak is started and maintained, it’s likely my daughter gets a little dopamine reward in her brain. It feels good when someone snaps you back, after all. And the higher your streak number gets, the more valuable it becomes, and—logic would follow—the greater your dopamine reward. The streak is in itself a self-building intensifier.

Teens experience a lot of social pressure to have many and highly-numbered streaks. At a time when teens are most concerned with what others think about them, it becomes a friendship scoreboard, albeit one that is equal amounts exhilarating and scary-as-hell.

Snapchat is hardly alone in using streak psychology; I’m seeing it pop up just about everywhere. I use an app called Headspace that uses streak tracking to convince me to meditate a bit each day. Earlier this year, an email newsletter I read, theSkimm, coded in some streak tracking. When I opened the day’s missive, it showed me how many days in a row I had done so. If you hit 8 in a row, you were entered in a contest.

And while gamifying the use of apps and services like this may seem to walk a fine line in the short term between encouraging and exploitative, there are long-term effects as well—repeated daily actions can become habits, after all, and research suggests it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit. (The pinnacle of this might be the award-winning app Streaks, which dispenses with hiding its gamification and instead built an entire app around the raw Pavlovian thrill of task completion.)

My daughter tells me most of her streaks are over 100. And while this may help her feel better about who she is, I can’t help but feel, as I drive glumly to school listening to the beeps and boops of her phone, that I’m the one who’s paid the price.

So we’re trying to strike a balance between keeping her streaks up and chatting with Dad on the ride to school. It’s only been a few days so far, but I’m hoping it turns into a streak.