Social media platforms are using the same techniques as gambling firms to create psychological dependencies and ingrain their products in the lives of their users, experts warn.
These methods are so effective they can activate similar mechanisms as cocaine in the brain, create psychological cravings and even invoke “phantom calls and notifications” where users sense the buzz of a smartphone, even when it isn’t really there.
“Facebook, Twitter and other companies use methods similar to the gambling industry to keep users on their sites,” said Natasha Schüll, the author of Addiction by Design, which reported how slot machines and other systems are designed to lock users into a cycle of addiction. “In the online economy, revenue is a function of continuous consumer attention – which is measured in clicks and time spent.”
Whether it’s Snapchat streaks, Facebook photo-scrolling, or playing CandyCrush, Schüll explained, you get drawn into “ludic loops” or repeated cycles of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback — and the rewards are just enough to keep you going.
“If you disengage, you get peppered with little messages or bonus offers to get your attention and pull you back in,” said Schüll. “We have to start recognising the costs of time spent on social media. It’s not just a game – it affects us financially, physically and emotionally.”
Recreating the slot machine
The pull-to-refresh and infinite scrolling mechanism on our news feeds are unnervingly similar to a slot machine, said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist for Google who has been described as the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.
“You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing,” Harris wrote.
We cannot know when we will be rewarded, and more often than not we don’t find anything interesting or gratifying, much like gambling. But that’s precisely what keeps us coming back.
“The rewards are what psychologists refer to as variable reinforcement schedules and is the key to social media users repeatedly checking their screens,” said Dr Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioural addiction and director of Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit.
“Social media sites are chock-a-block with unpredictable rewards. They are trying to grab users’ attentions … to make social media users create a routine and habitually check their screens.”
Like gambling, which physically alters the brain’s structure and makes people more susceptible to depression and anxiety, social media use has been linked to depression and its potential to have an adverse psychological impact on users cannot be overlooked or underestimated.
For instance, phone dependency, driven by high social-media usage, can lead us to think our phone is vibrating, or that we have received a message, even when we haven’t.
“Phantom calls and notifications are linked to our psychological craving for such signals,” said Professor Daniel Kruger, an expert in human behaviour, from the University of Michigan. “These social media messages can activate the same brain mechanisms as cocaine [does] and this is just one of the ways to identify those mechanisms because our minds are a physiological product of our brain.”
“There are whole departments trying to design their systems to be as addictive as possible. They want you to be permanently online and by bombarding you with messages and stimuli try to redirect your attention back to their app or webpage.”
However, the number of monthly active users of Facebook hit 2.13 billion earlier this year, up 14% from a year ago. Despite the furore around its data privacy issues, the social media monolith posted record revenues for the first quarter of 2018, making $11.97bn, up 49% on last year.
A key reason for this is because Facebook has become so entrenched in our lives: we can’t put it down.
Behavioural psychologist, Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has conceptualised how people become attached to social media.
“It starts with a trigger, an action, a reward and then an investment and its through successive cycles, through these hooks, that habits are formed. We see them in all sorts of products, certainly in social media and gambling. This is a big part of how habits are changed.”
Once a habit is formed something previously prompted by an external trigger, like a notification, email, or any sort of ring or ding, is no longer needed, Eyal remarked.
It is replaced or supplemented with an internal trigger meaning that we form a mental association between wanting to use this product and seeking to serve an emotional need.
“The products are built to be engaging and what’s engaging for some is addictive for others, that’s clear.”
"Feeds need to die because they distort our views and disconnect us from other human beings around us. At first, I thought I was missing out on some Very Important Content. I felt disconnected. I fought against my own FOMO. But now, I don't feel anything. What's going on on Instagram? I don't care. Facebook is now the worst internet forum you can find. Twitter is filled with horrible, abusive people. Instagram has become a tiny Facebook now that it has discouraged all the weird, funny accounts from posting with its broken algorithm. LinkedIn's feed is pure spam.
And here's what I realized after forgetting about all those "social" networks. First, they're tricking you and pushing the right buttons to make you check your feed just one more time. They all use thirsty notifications, promote contrarian posts that get a lot of engagement and play with your emotions. Posting has been gamified and you want to check one more time if you got more likes on your last Instagram photo. Everything is now a story so that you pay more attention to your phone and you get bored less quickly -- moving pictures with sound tend to attract your eyes... [F]inally, I realized that I was missing out by constantly checking all my feeds. By putting my phone on 'Do Not Disturb' for days, I discovered new places, started conversations and noticed tiny little things that made me smile."
"Shocking surveillance video shows the moment a Pittsburgh woman was knocked out cold by a man on a busy sidewalk — but that’s not the worst of it. The footage also shows the woman being beaten and robbed by bystanders — who proceed to take pictures of her, including selfies — as she lies unconscious on the ground.
A group of men can then be seen walking over to her — cellphones in hand, snapping pictures and video — as she lies unconscious on the sidewalk. Shortly after leaving, the men reportedly returned and began taking even more photos."
"It's People Like Us uses dashboard cameras to capture the driving behaviour of five young motorists, all of whom willingly signed up to the project, and each of whom is revealed as a serial offender when it comes to using their mobile phones while driving."
"Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing's original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a cafe. After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines. Today, computation overall is doing this. There's not much work and play left that computers don't handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don't seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers. [...] This new cyberpunk dystopia is more Stepford Wives, less William Gibson. Everything continues as it was before, but people treat reality as if it were in a computer."
Tony Fadell, former Apple engineer on iPod and iPhone, founder of Nest (acquired by Google), and leader of Google Glass development until 2016, purportedly "mulls" technology's "unintended consequences."
"I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?" Fadell said. "Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can -- like we see with fake news -- blow up people's brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?"
The world Fadell describes is one in which screens are everywhere, distracting us and interrupting what’s important, while promoting a culture of self-aggrandizement. The problem? He says that addiction has been designed into our devices–and it’s harming the newest generation.
“And I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens,” Fadell says. “They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
Products like the iPhone, Fadell believes, are more attuned to the needs of the individual rather than what's best for the family and the larger community.
And pointing to YouTube owner Google, Fadell said, "It was like, [let] any kind of content happen on YouTube. Then a lot of the executives started having kids, [and saying], maybe this isn't such a good idea. They have YouTube Kids now."
“This self-absorbing culture is starting to blow,” he says. “Parents didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know this was a thing they needed to teach because we didn’t know for ourselves. We all kind of got absorbed in it.”
"The biggest psychological experiment ever is being conducted, and we’re all taking part in it: every day, a billion people are tested online. Which ingenious tricks and other digital laws ensure that we fill our online shopping carts to the brim, or stay on websites as long as possible? Or vote for a particular candidate?
The bankruptcies of department stores and shoe shops clearly show that our buying behaviour is rapidly shifting to the Internet. An entirely new field has arisen, of ‘user experience’ architects and ‘online persuasion officers’. How do these digital data dealers use, manipulate and abuse our user experience? Not just when it comes to buying things, but also with regards to our free time and political preferences.
Aren’t companies, which are running millions of tests at a time, miles ahead of science and government, in this respect? Now the creators of these digital seduction techniques, former Google employees among them, are themselves arguing for the introduction of an ethical code. What does it mean, when the conductors of experiments themselves are asking for their power and possibilities to be restricted?"
"'What's on your mind?' It's the friendly Facebook question which lets you share how you're feeling. It's also the question that unlocks the details of your life and helps turn your thoughts into profits.
Facebook has the ability to track much of your browsing history, even when you're not logged on, and even if you aren't a member of the social network at all. This is one of the methods used to deliver targeted advertising and 'news' to your Facebook feed. This is why you are unlikely to see anything that challenges your world view. This feedback loop is fuelling the rise and power of 'fake news'. "We're seeing news that's tailored ever more tightly towards those kinds of things that people will click on, and will share, rather than things that perhaps are necessarily good for them", says one Media Analyst. This information grants huge power to those with access to it. Republican Party strategist Patrick Ruffini says, "What it does give us is much greater level of certainty and granularity and precision down to the individual voter, down to the individual precinct about how things are going to go". Resultantly, former Facebook journalist, Adam Schrader thinks that there's "a legitimate argument to this that Facebook influenced the election, the United States Election results."
Children refusing to put down their phones is a common flashpoint in many homes, with a third of British children aged 12 to 15 admitting they do not have a good balance between screen time and other activities.
But in the US, the problem has become so severe for some families that children as young as 13 are being treated for digital technology addiction.
One ‘smartphone rehab’ centre near Seattle has started offering residential “intensive recovery programs” for teenagers who have trouble controlling their use of electronic devices.
The Restart Life Centre says parents have been asking it to offer courses of treatment to their children for more than eight years.
Hilarie Cash, the Centre’s founder, told Sky News smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices can be so stimulating and entertaining that they “override all those natural instincts that children actually have for movement and exploration and social interaction”.
Child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans, who has worked with hospitals, schools and families for 25 years, said her workload has significantly increased since the use of smartphones became widespread among young people.
“It’s a simplistic view, but I think it is the ubiquity of broadband and smartphones that has changed the pace and the power and the drama of mental illness in young people,” she told The Telegraph.
A ComRes poll of more than 1,000 parents of children aged under 18, published in September 2015, found 47 per cent of parents said they thought their children spent too much time in front of screens, with 43 per cent saying this amounts to an emotional dependency."
"If you pull out your phone to check Twitter while waiting for the light to change, or read e-mails while brushing your teeth, you might be what the American Psychological Association calls a “constant checker.” And chances are, it’s hurting your mental health.
Last week, the APA released a study finding that Americans were experiencing the first statistically significant stress increase in the survey’s 10-year history. In January, 57 percent of respondents of all political stripes said the U.S. political climate was a very or somewhat significant source of stress, up from 52 percent who said the same thing in August. On Thursday, the APA released the second part of its 1 findings, “Stress In America: Coping With Change,” examining the role technology and social media play in American stress levels.
Social media use has skyrocketed from 7 percent of American adults in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. For those in the 18-29 age range, the increase is larger, from 12 percent to a remarkable 90 percent. But while an increase in social media usage is hardly surprising, the number of people who just can’t tear themselves away is stark: Nowadays, 43 percent of Americans say they are checking their e-mails, texts, or social media accounts constantly. And their stress levels are paying for it: On a 10-point scale, constant checkers reported an average stress level of 5.3. For the rest of Americans, the average level is a 4.4.
If the first step toward recovery, however, is admitting there is a problem, Americans are on their way. Some 65 percent of respondents said “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is important. But alas, knowing you have a problem is not the same as fixing it: Only 28 percent of those Americans say they take their own advice."