Technology: If it runs your life, might it ruin it, too?

How often do you pick up your phone to do something important, then notice that tiny red encircled number in the corner of your app, indicating that you’ve got a notification? You tap it and see you’ve been tagged in a video by a friend. The next thing you know, you’ve entered a rabbit hole of nonstop videos that auto play from one to the next without your intervention. So much for that important task!

It may feel like it was your decision to check that notification, but you’ve actually been programmed to check it, like a Pavlovian dog waiting for its next meal of ‘likes’. This is the way our apps work today. Technology is intentionally designed to suck you in, and then crafted to keep your eyes on the screen for as long as possible. The longer you’re using the app, the more money they make from advertising revenue. Therefore, whether you realise it or not, there’s a battle going on for your attention, and it’s creating a bit of a behavioural epidemic for our generation, and the next.

Companies will actually go as far as using the very same techniques used to hook adults into gambling on 6 year old children. Former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris, wrote about this 2 years ago, saying that smartphones are the equivalent of slot machines — but instead of waiting for us in casinos they’re sitting right in our pockets.

As dangerous as it sounds, there aren’t any rules against it, and the smartest people at the biggest tech companies are paid to get you hooked, and keep you there. Shreya Dalela, co-founder at Speaking Walls, says that companies will go as far as hiring neuroscientists and psychologists to understand how our minds work to capitalize on our ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ (or ‘FOMO’, to the kids) as much as possible. She goes on to suggest that this leaves our mind in an endless loop craving the next hit, and it’s not good for our mental health.

I’m no psychologist, but it doesn’t take one to recognise some of the following techniques that mess with our heads. If you’ve not thought so much about them before, I hope being aware can help you defend yourself against them:

1. The Slot Machine/Dopamine Hit

If you think about any app you use, there’s a ‘pull to refresh’ gesture on just about every single one. You can ‘pull down’ by swiping your thumb in a downward motion along your screen to check for more messages, notifications or anything new. The interaction is often paired with a fun animation and even a ‘pop’ sound. It’s very much like the lever on a slot machine. Each time you pull it, something slightly different happens — you could have a new message, a new like, or nothing at all.

This plays with our mind, and is known as the dopamine seek and reward loop, where the pleasure sensors in our mind are stimulated. The key here is that the rewards that come back from the interaction are also varied — so we often get a surprise time. Interestingly, apps can in fact update in real-time by themselves, without us carrying out this action. However, companies choose to craft their apps for us to seek information in this way.

2. Social Recognition

Social acceptance falls amongst the highest motivators for humans, according to the famous Maslow hierarchy of needs. Companies capitalize on this one very cleverly. For example, Facebook has algorithms that manipulate what everybody sees in their newsfeed. The strongest weightings are given to events that boost the ego most, such as changing your profile picture. So when an events like this happens they are given more prominence.

As Georges Abi-Heila puts it, any signal of increased social vulnerability will purposely reach further and longer on Facebook, triggering a flow of likes and comments that draws you into the platform. When it comes to birthday, everybody is encouraged to wish you a happy one.

This technology can therefore create a behaviour that I will call ‘like fishing’. The pleasure we get from social acceptance encourages us to share more so we can get more ‘likes’. As we get more, we only crave even more still, like a drug addict.

3. Distraction and Social Pressure

When you open a message on WhatsApp, and the app automatically shows a read receipt with two blue ticks to the message sender, do you feel pressure to respond right away?

An experience not too dissimilar to that of a face to face conversation is created. It’s as if you’ve just listened to somebody speak to you, but you don’t answer. That would feel socially unacceptable, so this mechanism causes us to answer messages quicker — even if we’re in the middle of something.

And to make things worse, the app will even display when you are typing back. Not only have you read their message but now your friend can see you typing and are excited for your response. You can’t let them down!

This means that we’re almost constantly on call, hooked to our phones forever distracted. It also makes you wonder who’s in control of the conversation — do we really want to talk, or is the technology forcing us to?

Conclusion

Each of the 3 technology issues outlined above are pretty big pressures our generation face, and they’re unlikely to stop. We spend quite an insane amount of time in front of our screens as highlighted by Quartz:

In the UK, it adds up to around 7 hours a day: 148 minutes in front of a TV screen, 97 minutes on a laptop, 111 minutes on a smartphone and 55 on a tablet screen. With all this time interacting with technology, and the craftiness of the companies controlling what we’re using, it’s bound to affect our mental health. The first step to combatting this is to be aware of it, and the pressures each-other are facing. So don’t worry when people don’t respond to your messages, and take a break from responding to others — tell them why and take a digital detox.