A couple of years ago, I got a text from a friend that read simply, “This seems bad.” With it was a screenshot of something that did seem, at best, not great: an iPhone push notification from the sports-betting app DraftKings, laden with emoji and extolling the day’s promotional gambling deals. “Yikes,” I murmured at my phone screen. Sports betting had not yet been legalized in my state, so this was my first encounter with how betting apps would work, and in that moment, I felt not a little bit foolish. Of course they’d want to keep people wagering throughout the day. Of course there would be push notifications.
My instinctual dismay was, I thought, straightforward: For some people, gambling can become compulsive, and intrusive reminders to place bets did not seem healthy for those people. But I remember that screenshot from my friend so clearly because the sense of unease it inspired has persisted. Gambling apps are an extreme illustration of a much more widespread problem with push notifications. One study, conducted in 2013, found that the average smartphone user receives 80 advertisements, sale reminders, news alerts, social-media communiqués, and other pop-up messages a day. More conservative estimates still put the daily count around 50. They have become a defining feature of the smartphone and, thus, of modern life.
Alerts that your crush liked your Instagram Story, that news is happening, that your Uber has arrived, that someone bought the old bridesmaid dress you listed on eBay: Push notifications are messengers and messages alike. They can zap you to attention with a sound or burst of vibration, or else just squat in silence on your most valuable digital real estate, the center of the screen. In spite of this, they’re not regulated in the same way as other kinds of spammy marketing communications—or, really, in much of any way at all. Businesses must obtain express written consent before sending you promotional text messages. But what is a text if not a way for anyone with a phone to send you a push notification?
Neither the Federal Communications Commission nor the Federal Trade Commission—the agencies that oversee things such as telemarketing, promotional emails, and advertising content—has claimed dominion over how pushes are used. Once you’ve downloaded an app, your lock screen is fair game: As long as notifications’ content doesn’t run afoul of more general rules (regarding truth in advertising or children’s privacy online, for example), app makers are allowed to use alerts as they see fit.
In practice, that means the company that runs your phone’s operating system—Apple or Google, for the overwhelming majority of Americans—will decide how push notifications function in your life. On phones running either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android, users must opt in to receive notifications from each app. But that consent, once given, may be taken as a blanket yes to any or all notifications, whether functional or promotional in nature. (If you feel like you’ve been seeing more push-notification ads on your iPhone recently, you’re probably right. Apple loosened the rules against these promotions in 2020.)
Opting out may be no better. Notifications are bothersome, but not all bothering is created equal. Sometimes, both online and off, you want to be interrupted: If I lose track of time and forget to feed my dog, I want her to huff and whine and stomp her little feet at me until I realize she needs to eat. I want a stranger to tap me on the shoulder and hand me my keys if they fall out of my bag. I want to know that the car I called is about to pull up so I know when to go outside. Although Apple and Google both provide simple, centralized controls to revoke an app’s permission to send you any kind of notifications at all, in some cases, those intrusive messages are genuinely helpful, if not essential.
Trying to tailor your notifications to your needs is where things get really tiresome. If a given app does allow for fine-grain control—plenty of them don’t—you’ll have to divine where those settings are tucked away inside its interface, which can be a lengthier and more exasperating endeavor than it ever should be. I have had a cellphone for nearly a quarter century and write about consumerism for a living, and still I had to look up third-party instructions on where to find Amazon’s notification preferences. (I’ll give you a hint: They are not anywhere within the eight different menu trees on the “Your Account” page—not even under the tab marked “App Preferences.”) App makers have little incentive to make these controls easy to find or particularly user-friendly, and they have every incentive to find ways to continue stacking their promos in the same list where you get texts from your family and alerts of new test results from your doctor.
Spammy push notifications are a problem that could be solved by regulators—or even just by Apple and Google. When users first opt in for notifications, they should be taken directly to a menu that lets them choose up front which ones they want to receive. This phenomenon—in which a user experience that could be improved with a few tweaks just hasn’t been—has become more common in our digital lives over the years, as once-novel products and services degrade or bloat with age. In that way, push notifications may indeed be the smartphone’s defining feature. They are, if nothing else, a perfect avatar of how frustrating it can be to own one.