Post No.: 0398
Electronic devices and apps, such as mobile phones and social media apps, bring enormous benefits, including connecting users from all over the world so that we can keep in touch, share our stories with each other and find inspiration. But excessive usage can be problematic. Despite this – in a world competing for our attentions – their designers wish to employ all the tricks in the book they can to make us use their apps, games and platforms as much as possible.
Many of these products exploit human psychology by creating frequent little dopamine releases (akin to what addictive substances such as cocaine do) via ‘habit-forming technologies’ and design. They make people unconsciously or subconsciously constantly think ‘just a little bit more’. They play on people’s fear of missing out so that they pay their products habitually repeated attention. Behavioural addictions were included in Post No.: 0359 when Furrywisepuppy discussed addictions. This isn’t to say that behavioural addictions are as powerful as substance-based addictions, and not all users of certain technologies will become behaviourally addicted to using them – but when some users do, it brings about many of the same symptoms and ultimately generates adverse health impacts on their lives.
Design tricks that work below our conscious awareness include a little delay before receiving a notification, which generates a dopamine hit from that moment of anticipation. There’s the ‘ping’ sound when receiving a notification, which has become akin to the conditioned salivation response of Pavlov’s dogs to the sound of a bell. The colours of notification symbols and so on are specifically chosen for their psychological associations rather than are accidental, such as red symbols that imply urgency. The highly visible statistics, such as ‘follower’ or ‘like’ counts, play to our desires and insecurities. There’s also the habit of swiping or pulling down from the top of the screen to refresh and check for new messages, even when new messages are pushed automatically. The default autoplay function keeps us hooked on video platforms. Being slightly unsure of what the next message, video or random loot reward is going to be makes it even more like playing a casino slot machine with its variable ratio reward schedule. And more…
These design choices can make apps behaviourally addictive for some people. Those who think that large corporations don’t want to use methods that keep their users addicted to using their products if it harms them because they want life-long users are wrong – because we just have to look at the smoking and junk food industries, who have tried to use these exact same rationalisations too! Forming habits is precisely how to create life-long behaviours, whether good or bad behaviours. And addictions are basically irresistible habits. So getting people hooked on something is to make them repeat customers or users. Addicts are life-long, or at least long-term, users – addicts aren’t able to easily give up or stop doing what they’re addicted to whenever they simply want, otherwise they wouldn’t be called addicts. (‘Life-long’ also depends on the length of one’s life because it can be shortened(!) – for example, through cancer in the case of smoking tobacco or obesity, or through being too physically inactive in the case of spending too much time on sedentary activities such as social media, video platforms or videogames.) Addiction-maximising design tricks are effective ways to create life-long users.
Some will argue that there’s no such thing as addiction to certain technologies – that only chemical addictions like heroin addiction are real. It’s true that the latter are far more serious than the former for individuals and so we shouldn’t in the process trivialise the latter. But as long as doing something too much has a negative impact on a person’s life then it’s a problem, and one of those potential problems is sleep deprivation for worrying about, or even physically checking on, one’s phone throughout the night; and sleep deprivation is causal for a multitude of health problems. Some people feel a palpable anxiety over not being able to access their phones. Many aren’t able to moderate their time spent on them, to the detriment of other activities such as work or schoolwork. There are possible bi-directional relationships between excessive phone usage and mental health problems.
You might want to change the term ‘addiction’ (although this is the term that some in the industry themselves use) to something else like ‘problem behaviour’? But the main point is that it causes problems and therefore the behaviour should be addressed. If it’s the case that it’s really about addictive personalities then technologies that feed this personality are still a part of that problem because they tempt such behaviours to express. And if there’s an industry trying to make millions from the fear by selling self-help books and seminars, then there’s an industry making billions from keeping users mindlessly hooked on their products as much as possible.
When we do too much of any activity, it means taking time away from or forgoing other activities. Nothing comes for free. Excessive electronic device usage can cause problems because it takes time away from healthier activities, such as physical exercise and education, and exposes users to more of certain harmful things, such as fake news and hate speech, too. Such harms aren’t instant hence users can do something that’s harmful to themselves for a long time without realising that it’s harmful to them in order to learn to stop doing it in time. It’s like we could argue that there shouldn’t be any cases of tooth decay or type 2 diabetes (indirectly through becoming overweight) as a result of consuming too many sugary drinks because ‘consumers aren’t stupid and won’t do anything that’s harmful to themselves’, such as drinking too many sugary drinks – but many people evidently do, and will drink them for as long as they can in their lives, until they perhaps get tooth decay or type 2 diabetes. And they still will even when they see other people getting these diseases after seeing these other people drink too many sugary drinks! And in the case of fake news, they might never realise it’s causing them any harm because they won’t realise it’s fake.
Companies are competing against each other to capture our limited consumer attentions and as a result will not want to voluntarily (without applied pressures) relent in making or keeping their products addictive, especially if engagement and adverts are a main source of revenue. More than wanting to instil healthy rather than unhealthy habits too, large corporations care more about what makes them the most money and maximises shareholder value. Moderate usage is fine for users but maximising usage, which can lead to excessive usage, logically maximises the profits for those companies.
Most users want a user-experience that’s slick, friendly and engaging too. Who wants an app that’s so painful to use that one never wants to use it again? It’s just like most people want food that’s tasty, which often means high in sugar, fat and/or salt. And companies will rationally want to supply what users demand if it helps to generate them some worthwhile revenue in return. But wants aren’t the same as needs, and consumers evidently don’t always want what’s best for them or don’t always want to forgo what’s not good for them in excessive amounts (such as in the case of being physically lazy, or consuming junk food or alcohol, for instance).
It often needs external pressures or cultural change (or somehow modifying the human brain’s reward system(!)) to make an addictive thing less attractive. Individual willpower will work if/when we have it, but if/when we don’t, self-regulatory methods, such as voluntarily using apps or other systems that place timed locks on using one’s phone, are unreliable because people just won’t choose to use them. It’s just like those cookie jars with timed locks on – who has one of those? And if you do have one and are the type to demolish a lot of cookies in one sitting then do you still use it?! Or it’s like the Nintendo Wii console – it is/was an excellent active video gaming system, but active video gaming remains a niche in the videogames industry. People need to continue using such consoles (other active or ‘fitness’ gaming systems are available) and in particular keep playing those physically active games, but relatively few still regularly do nowadays if they had one when they first came out. We tend to use such things for a bit, then stop. Meanwhile, the videogames industry is still growing and lots of people are still playing videogames, but generally sedentary ones. And that’s the market’s choice.
So people just won’t buy or use for long these voluntary self-curbing measures, and those who would probably don’t need them in the first place because if one has the self-discipline to voluntarily and consistently use such self-restrictions then one probably has the self-discipline to not constantly use what one wishes to restrict the usage of in a direct sense. Self-curbing apps that employ peer pressures (e.g. an entire group of people must all not use their phones for 30 minutes otherwise they’ll let each other down) may fare better for a while. But again, people will just not bother to use or will eventually stop using such voluntary measures if they really want to use their phones.
Dystopian visions used to only worry about governments employing surreptitious technologies and methods to control the minds of the population, but the modern evidence is that giant, global tech corporations are deliberately trying to do this to claim as much of our time, attention and money as possible through making us perform repeated habits that suit their interests – they’re creating fuzzy behavioural addictions for the sake of targeting market domination. It’s also giant tech media corporations facilitating the spread of fake news and propaganda. (Although these attitudes may change, they generally try to distance themselves from the content on their platforms by claiming that they didn’t create them, but they profit from their dissemination on their platforms nevertheless.) And it’s these giant tech firms again harvesting everyone’s private data too. Their aims are to get every person on the planet reliant on their technology ecosystems. Some of these corporations are more powerful than many governments of sovereign states in the world and have more reach than any single country.
When some of the creators of these very technologies and user interface designs are saying that it’s a problem, and are protecting themselves and their own loved-ones from their own creations, then it’s a clue that it’s a worrying problem! Maybe we should be most worried about the generations who are being raised to know no differently than a world of smartphones and social media?
We could potentially use the very same habit-forming design technologies but for the good – for forming good and healthy habits, such as exercise itself. And that’s a hope. There is such a problem as exercise addiction too though, or obsessively exercising too much at the expense of other aspects of one’s life and overall health – and fitness trackers and apps that facilitate the competitive comparing of people’s activity levels can feed this addiction for some. Even without this risk, such things will be competing against less healthy activities that employ the same techniques; and between sedentary and active activities, sedentary activities are more impulsively appealing for most (just like between junk food and healthful food, junk food is more impulsively appealing for most).
Meow. You might realise or know that Furrywisepuppy and I use social media, watch videos and absolutely love to play videogames, but maybe we’re lucky to not have addictive genetic risk factors? Please tell us, through the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below, how much you think the responsibility for any deleteriously excessive usage habits regarding electronic devices are down to the users or the designers?