Do you find yourself obsessively scrolling your social media feeds? Have you ever spent hours on end binge-watching a series on Netflix? Do you feel you’ve lost all self control when it comes to your favorite apps, platforms and games?
Well, that’s kind of the whole point.
That’s according to a growing number of tech “whistleblowers” – computer scientists, developers and innovators – who claim that specific features are being built into these platforms with the specific intention of getting people hooked.
“Features such as app notifications, autoplay – even “likes” and messages that self-destruct – are scientifically proven to compel us to watch/check in/respond right now or feel that we’re missing something really important,” writes Caroline Knorr of Common Sense Media.
These types of features – particularly on social media – can be especially powerful among teens, who often look to “likes” and comments to boost their sense of self worth. The rush that comes with feedback from peers online is enough to keep teens checking their phones multiple times a day.
An alarming study out of the Pew Research Center revealed that 95% of American teens have access to a smartphone, and half of them admit to being online “almost constantly.”
Ironically, the man who helped create the “like” feature for Facebook – Justin Rosenstein – has since blocked Reddit from his laptop, banned himself from the “heroin” of Snapchat and significantly limited the amount of time he spends on Facebook.
Rosenstein told the Guardian that he bought a new iPhone and asked his assistant to set up parental controls so that he wouldn’t be able to download apps.
“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences,” he said. “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”
Computer scientist Tristan Harris – founder of the Time Well Spent movement, argues that technology is literally taking over our ability to make sound decisions.
“Technology is hijacking our minds and society,” he wrote. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply – from our own behavior.”
Harris has now devoted his life to raising awareness and promoting responsibility in the tech industry.
“There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards,” he told the Atlantic. “There is a way to design based not on addiction.”
So how do we fight back against the apps, games and platforms so intricately designed to keep us addicted? There is power in knowing the science behind these features, and knowing exactly what to look for.
Common Sense Media identifies the following features that could prove dangerous when it comes to addiction, as well as tips for how to keep them in check.
Autoplay: Both Neflix and Facebook commonly use this video streaming feature that plays continuous content without any action from the user. Harris calls this the “bottomless bowl” phenomenon – in short, people eat more calories than intended when they’re holding a refillable bowl. Or in this case, watch too many episodes of a series at a time. What to do: Go into the Settings for the app and manually turn off autoplay (which is typically ON by default).
App Notifications: Studies show that push notifications are habit-forming. They align an external trigger (the “ding” sound) with an internal trigger (a feeling of boredom, uncertainty, insecurity, etc.) What to do: Turn them off! Most devices have a Settings section where you can turn off notifications. You should also be able to turn off notifications in the app’s settings.
Snapchat’s Snapstreaks: A Snapstreak begins after two users send snaps to each other for three days straight. Humans have a need to respond to a positive action with another positive action, and kids can become so obsessed with sustaining a streak that they give their friends access to their accounts when they can’t snap for themselves. What to do: Help kids understand how companies like Snapchat are using their (positive) desire to be nice to their friends to get them to use their product more. If your kid’s streaks are getting out of control, try allowing one time per day that your kid can send snaps, for example, after they take out the garbage, clean their room, and finish their homework.
Randomness: Social media companies use what’s called “variable rewards.” This technique keeps us searching endlessly for our “prize,” such as who friended us, who liked our posts, and who updated their status. (Not coincidentally, it’s also the method slot machines use to keep people pulling the lever.) Since you never know what’s going to come up, you keep coming back for more.
What to do: Turn off app notifications and schedule a timer to go off at a certain time every day and check your feeds then.
In-app purchases: Free games such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush lure you in by promising cheap thrills, then offering in-app purchases that let you level up, buy currency to use in the game, and more. But the real sneaky stuff is how companies keep you playing — and buying. The more you use the game and the more in-app purchases you make, the more companies learn about you. Thanks to games that connect to Facebook, they also know who your friends are. That lets them tailor specific products to you at the precise times you’re most likely to buy. What to do: Spring for the full, paid version of games. They’re cheaper – and safer – in the long run.