Addiction by design

Designers of social media and other apps are using deliberate strategies to keep users on their platform as long as possible. A leading technology designer who has designed some of these features himself has described these features as “behavioural cocaine”. The Dis- rupted Childhood report from the 5Rights Foundation states that

“It is unreasonable to design services to be compulsive and then reprimand children for being preoccupied with their services.”

Young people and their parents need to un- derstand that far from being a free, personal choice, many technology engineers are de- signing platforms that deliberately suck them in to spending more time on those platforms and that this can have unhealthy consequenc- es for themselves and their friends.

It is clear that some young people are strug- gling with increased anxiety and depression, video game or social media addiction, loss of

sleep and other issues resulting from use of online platforms.

A number of campaigners are trying to en- courage government to regulate any online platforms aimed at young people to ensure their needs are met. As educators, it is an area of study which should be included into the digital literacy curriculum to ensure that young people can apply this knowledge in eve- ryday life. Perhaps you could run a session with young people getting them to look at the features of popular online platforms and get them to identify what persuasive design fea- tures they contain and

how this affects their own and others’ use.

For further information see the BBC or 5Rights Disrupted Childhood report.

Clickbait – Material encouraging users to move to this content, for example titles may be offen- sive or extreme in nature, or be humorous or include highly emotive content, YouTube videos may be shocking. Young people may tend to view stories in a more idealised fashion and are more likely to be attracted by polarised material such as clickbait.

Infinite scroll and Auto functions – The capabil- ity of an app to keep scrolling without having to click is now understood to be highly habit form- ing and keep users on the platform for longer than necessary. In additions, the auto-play and auto-suggest features means that users may keep interacting with the app when they would otherwise have switched it off.

Reward loops – One of the major ways in which designers keep people hooked is known as the dopamine rush. When the human brain is prom- ised a reward it releases a chemical dopamine that is part of the boy’s reward system and is a pleasurable experience. Children are particularly vulnerable to this as they have not yet devel- oped the skills necessary to recognise that long-term satisfaction may be more rewarding than immediate gratification.

Likes and Friends – Human beings want to be popular and the use of likes, hearts or other forms of online validation allows us to measure how popular we are and compare our populari- ty with other people’s. People can end up bas- ing their entire sense of self-worth on their online likes rather than using other measures. There is also a pressure for young people not only to have as many online friends as possible, but then to interact with those friends as fre- quently as possible. Snapchat Snap Streaks en- courages users to stay in daily communication with each online friend – breaking the streak is seen as being a poor friend.

FOMO – Fear of missing out. This is the opposite of the issues relating to popularity, in that users become concerned that if they are not online they are not seeing events going on their friends’ lives but also may not be invited to events or chats. Also see notifications below.

Notifications – Most apps allow the setting up of notifications to let the user know there are new messages, features, offers etc. This encour- ages users to look at that app immediately and frequently during the day rather than at a time of their choice. There is evidence that children tend to look at the newest messages first so

young people may be even more at risk of re- sponding to notifications. There is also evidence that red notifications can make that need to check even more pronounced as we are condi- tioned to see red as a trigger colour. Surveys of young people show that although children think that friends should respond to messages quick- ly, many of them also find this quite stressful and see it as a demand. Notifications may also have sounds as well as visual cues and this may refocus the user of the screen rather than their surroundings.

Gaming features – Preventing users from saving is a technique games designers use to keep players on the platform for longer. In games such as Fortnite, if you do not complete the game you will lose the progress that you have made. In other games, designers alter the pace of play and use levels to stop players becoming bored and to keep them playing.

Busy, busy, busy – having busy screens with lots of features, or tasks that need to be clicked be- fore you can access the content you really want, slows down your experience and possibly dis- tracts you into spending longer on the platform. Banner ads also have this property.