“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
Is what Facebook’s designers asked themselves, according to Sean Parker, the first president of the site we have all come to know so well. The answer? Science. It’s come to light that tech companies are employing psychologists to apply their training and research findings to their global products. And in doing so, are manipulating human behaviour to keep consumers, well, consuming.
A group of psychologists responded to this by writing to the U.S. governing body of psychologists, the APA, stating their concerns over the ethicality of using science in consumerism. They highlight the all-important line in the APA Ethical Principles and Standards: “take care to do no harm.” A key ethical principle which, according to findings, social media currently does not follow. And it’s not surprise, really, that an Austrian research team found that people’s moods were negatively affected after scrolling through Facebook for just 20 minutes.
I bet you didn’t know that just having your phone face down on a table reduces brain power when trying to complete a task. While the negative effects in the tech department are becoming more apparent, a select group of psychologists are still actively encouraging this maladaptive behaviour so big companies can capitalise.
This exploitation is all in the name of profit. More time spent on apps means more time looking at ads. And more time spent playing video games makes people more invested, and more likely to make in-game purchases. So what psychological theories do they use in their design techniques to get people hooked and buying more?
There are 3 key factors in behavioural change – that is, getting you addicted to tech.
First of all, the tech should satisfy a craving. For social media this could be connection, or fear of rejection. With video games it’s gaining skills and the feeling of accomplishment as you master the game.
In the world of tech this means that ease of use of the product is also essential. People won’t get hooked on something difficult to access.
These triggers are rewards, either literal or psychological, that keep people using the tech for longer. Examples of this are delayed notifications after signing onto Twitter so you spend more time on the app, or rewards like free lives in games to keep you playing.
When all 3 bases are covered, a product has the potential to captivate our attention for extreme periods of time, to the point where we become addicted. This framework of persuasive design is key in the tech industry – creating a blueprint that many big-name companies follow.
One of the most worrying parts of this addiction is just how effective tech companies are at capitalising on the fear of rejection to engage people in social media. This fear, and the need for social approval, is particularly prominent in teenagers. The malleability of a child’s brain definitely doesn’t go untouched, in fact, its become the target of successful technology. Neuroscientist, Ramsay Brown, recently told Time, “Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”
Here’s more science for you, neuropsychology can explain the power of social media validation. When someone likes or comments on one of your posts, it triggers a dopamine hit. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, creates a reward signal in your brain. This signal is actually fundamental in learning, and therefore forming habits. People will start to exhibit certain behaviour in anticipation of this chemical reward. Slowly this behaviour will become perceived as a need by the brain. The behaviour won’t actually always give us this chemical hit, but we repeat it, like compulsively checking Facebook feeds, in case we strike lucky. It’s clear that at the root of all successful business strategies is to capitalise on this psychological behaviour to not only get you to be a customer, but to keep you as a customer.
Tech creators are using science to make us feel good, right? Not quite. It’s making us dependent, addicted. This is inhibiting how productive we are in our daily lives, and more seriously damaging our health – particularly children’s. This clearly can’t be good.
50% of teenagers say they feel addicted to their phones
But some tech creators are finally starting to listen to research. The tech giants are acknowledging that their own creations now worry them. From Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, and his concern for users heedlessly giving away their data. To Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, and his questioning of what the platform is “doing to our children’s brains.”
How can we bring tech back to something that helps us, not hinder us? How can tech be redesigned to be less addictive and manipulative, but not less user-friendly? It’s difficult. And it’s questionable as to whether or not the changes that have been made are largely superficial. Facebook, for example, have claimed they’re trying to maximise the time spent interacting with friends and family on their site, and minimise interaction with businesses and brands by changes in their algorithm. But does this really reduce the amount of time spent on the platform over all? We’re not too sure.
Despite the manipulation, some people are taking initiative. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, wants to make a change. Through cultural awakening, political pressure and inspiring better design, he believes we can reverse this addiction. His team are creating a “Ledger of Harms”. This website will compile evidence on repercussions of different technologies on health, to guide engineers in designing products. This is the beginning of a conversation that hopefully won’t fizzle out. People are striving to put their expertise and experience to work to lessen our tech addiction, but still enable us to connect to family and loved ones.
Let’s keep talking
This isn’t the start or end of this conversation. We’ve talked about digital health and ways to regain balance when it comes to tech before. As family people, we’re committed to challenging the negative side while promoting a healthy relationship with technology. At Kindaba,we want to use tech to create a private social network and bring you closer to your family through instant, easy and authentic connections.
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