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."
"Silicon Valley's utopians genuinely but mistakenly believe that more information and connection makes us more analytical and informed. But when faced with quinzigabytes of data, the human tendency is to simplify things. Information overload forces us to rely on simple algorithms to make sense of the overwhelming noise. This is why, just like the advertising industry that increasingly drives it, the internet is fundamentally an emotional medium that plays to our base instinct to reduce problems and take sides, whether like or don't like, my guy/not my guy, or simply good versus evil. It is no longer enough to disagree with someone, they must also be evil or stupid...
Nothing holds a tribe together like a dangerous enemy. That is the essence of identity politics gone bad: a universe of unbridgeable opinion between opposing tribes, whose differences are always highlighted, exaggerated, retweeted and shared. In the end, this leads us to ever more distinct and fragmented identities, all of us armed with solid data, righteous anger, a gutful of anger and a digital network of likeminded people. This is not total connectivity; it is total division."
"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."
"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."
"Researchers at Stanford and Princeton universities have found a way to connect the dots between people’s private online activity and their Twitter accounts—even for people who have never tweeted.
When the team tested the technique on 400 real people who submitted their browsing history, they were able to correctly pick out the volunteers’ Twitter profiles nearly three-quarters of the time.
Here’s how the de-anonymization system works: The researchers figured that a person is more likely to click a link that was shared on social media by a friend—or a friend of a friend—than any other random link on the internet. (Their model controls for the baseline popularity of each website.) With that in mind, and the details of an anonymous person’s browser history in hand, the researchers can compute the probability that any one Twitter user created that browsing history. People’s basic tendency to follow links they come across on Twitter unmasks them—and it usually takes less than a minute.
“You can even be de-anonymized if you just browse and follow people, without actually sharing anything.”
"Foreign travelers arriving in the United States on the visa waiver program have been presented with an "optional" request to "enter information associated with your online presence," a government official confirmed Thursday. The prompt includes a drop-down menu that lists platforms including Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as a space for users to input their account names on those sites. The new policy comes as Washington tries to improve its ability to spot and deny entry to individuals who have ties to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. But the government has faced a barrage of criticism since it first floated the idea last summer. The Internet Association, which represents companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, at the time joined with consumer advocates to argue the draft policy threatened free expression and posed new privacy and security risks to foreigners. Now that it is final, those opponents are furious the Obama administration ignored their concerns. The question itself is included in what's known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a process that certain foreign travelers must complete to come to the United States. ESTA and a related paper form specifically apply to those arriving here through the visa-waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel and stay in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa."
"Most Americans do not see "information overload" as a problem for them despite the explosion of internet data and images, according to a Pew Research Center survey on Wednesday.
Only 20 percent of U.S. adults feel they get more information than they can handle, down from 27 percent a decade ago. Just over three-quarters like having so much information at hand, the survey of 1,520 people showed.
"Generally, Americans appreciate lots of information and access to it," said the report into how U.S. adults cope with information demands.
Roughly four in five Americans agree that they are confident about using the internet to keep up with information demands, that a lot of information gives them a feeling of more control over their lives, and that they can easily determine what information is trustworthy.
Americans who are 65 or older, have a high school diploma or less and earn less than $30,000 a year are more likely to say they face a glut of information.
Eighty-four percent of Americans with online access through three sources - home broadband, smartphone and tablet computer - say they like having so much information available.
By contrast, 55 percent of those with no online source felt overwhelmed by the amount of possible information.
The term "information overload" was popularized by author Alvin Toffler in his 1970 bestseller "Future Shock." It refers to difficulties that people face from getting too much information or data.
The Pew survey involved people over 18 interviewed by landline or cell phones from March 7 to April 4. The margin of error was 2.9 percentage points, meaning results could vary by that much either way."