The concept that social media apps (such as Facebook and Twitter) and mobile games (such as Candy Crush) are addictive is nothing new. At one point or another we have all been victims of addiction to an app. Whether it is the red icon over the FB app, the “pull down to refresh” action on your email, or chasing the high score in Flappy Bird, we have all been an addict at one point.
While the concept of addiction to technology has been around for a while, only now are we seeing increased public awareness. Tech companies are no longer being viewed solely as beacons of innovation but are also being compared to other evil industries such as the tobacco industry (see this NYT oped by David Brooks). Sean Parker ex-president of Facebook even admitted himself that early on Facebook was “ exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to increase engagement on the platform. I am seeing more and more articles like this one in The Economist citing new research showing how excessive use of phones could be leading to depression in teenagers. Articles about the downfalls of phone use and the perils of tech companies are becoming more and more apparent.
So while we have all been joking about how addictive are phones are for years, we are now only seeing the beginning of institutional awareness to the negative effects of applications that have been designed to capture our attention as much as possible.
One day there will be a discovery brought to the public eye, concretely showing the negative long term effects on our brains by these apps, similar to that of CTEs in the NFL or the link between cigarettes and cancer by the Surgeon General in the 60's. This discovery will force the industry to confront the problem of addiction and technology head on.
It will be very interesting to see if / when this discovery happens and how it will effect our lives, but I want to think about what happens after that discovery. I want to fast forward to a world where awareness has reached its peak, the research is in, and solutions are being proposed. What do those solutions look like? What reforms will the tech industry need to go through?
Let’s assume we are in the future, consumers are as addicted as ever to their devices , and the research is in with the following discoveries:
- Mobile App’s have the potential to cause long term detrimental effects due to repeated triggering of dopamine releases in the brain.
- Symptoms of negative effects on the brain include but are not limited to: addiction, depression, irritability, and impaired decision making.
- Whether intentional or not tech companies are structured around optimizing the release of dopamine to increase “user engagement” and garner maximum attention from the consumer. This has the effect of creating the perfect apps to turn consumers into addicts.
Again these are completely fictional discoveries to imagine what reforms would take place. Imagining these revelations I can already think of some reforms that might take place.
There would need to be some sort of requirement to alert users to the potential negative effects every time they use an app that has been categorized as doing so. Similar to a Surgeon Generals warning on cigarette boxes, we may see pop up notifications every time we open an app that says “WARNING: This Product May Cause Addictive Behavior” or “WARNING: This App Causes Long Term Negative Effects on Your Brain” with a link to in depth details about what those effects are.
Letting users know the effects of the technology they are using could be a reasonable first reform. This wouldn’t be too complicated and also wouldn’t change the industry much except for maybe seeing decreased user engagement. I can imagine frameworks and libraries that help developers include these warning in their apps.
Beyond notifying consumers of the effects these apps may have on them there may even be a requirement for apps to be transparent about how much time a user is actually spending using it. Similar to how some companies are becoming more transparent with what ad segments a user is a part of, apps can be transparent about time spent within an app. A section where a user could go to see how many hours a week they spend “engaging”. This would at least inform the user of the scale of their usage.
Avoiding Addictive Design Patterns
The challenging reforms will be around the organization of tech companies themselves, everyone from the Facebook’s to the Flappy Bird’s of the world. Anyone creating an app may be required to prove some sort of attempt to avoid the pitfalls of creating a product that causes negative effects on the brain.
Companies need to be aware of the effects of their creations and try to avoid design patterns that trigger recently discovered negative brain effects. Things like:
- Using notification icons, when there is no new updates, just to bring a user into an app.
- Push notifications enticing users to jump back into app, also with no functional purpose.
- A “pull down to refresh” action for nothing more than displaying old content and alerting the brain of a potential dopamine release.
Basically using any design pattern with the purpose of creating a “reward-loop”. Tech teams would need to avoid using patterns just to get a user to interact or engage with no functional purpose. Today apps do this constantly, and even A/B test these features to see how they can best get a user to engage for long periods of time and engage often. They do this to the extent that consumers become mentally dependent on an application. In the future we may see the industry move towards avoiding these patterns.
Maybe not a specific reform but rather a shift in thinking of how investors measure success of new companies. A lot of investors look at companies in terms of how many users it can get and how often those users engage. Not necessarily at its functional use or even its revenue let alone its profitability. Take the recent Shark Tank company Hater, who just received a $200,000 investment from Mark Cuban while having a total of $0 in revenue.
What excited the sharks so much was the app’s user growth and engagement. Cuban at one point even talks about how he likes the “gamification” aspect of it. Which is code for “it gets users hooked”. The industry in the future may need to shift its thinking away from just how to get users “hooked”. The reason a lot of startups focus on user engagement is because that’s what investors pay for. You will never be able to stop focus on user engagement, since it is the best proxy for how much users like an app, but there should be other metrics to look at to see if users are engaged because a product is good or because it is addictive. Today no one really cares why a user is engaged, just if they are.
Some of these reforms would be hugely controversial as they would be changing how an entire industry operates and limiting what companies can do. It will also bring forth arguments against “Big Government”, effects on job creation, and we will likely see an army of lobbyists like never before. But maybe this doesn’t have to be the government bringing these reforms. We are already seeing some signs of the industry becoming self-aware, maybe some regulations will be self-imposed. I can’t help being an optimist.
Historically when an industry is forced to regulate they tend to resist. Being in the tech industry though I see it’s tendency to be idealistic and think big, so maybe just maybe the industry will catch itself. Maybe tech can address a problem before we see government intervention. Maybe reforms don’t have to be so far away. Maybe the time is now for the tech industry to publicly acknowledge the effects it has on peoples minds, address that it is a problem, and start thinking of solutions.
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