Dark UX design and digital loneliness: How technology is weaponised to keep you hooked on to social media

Unchecked screen time, hacking the brain to get you hooked on to social media apps is playing havoc with our mental wellbeing

As we approached 2018, something in the technology world had shifted.

Smart engineers and designers, who had worked on the most popular social media products of our time, had started speaking out about the ill-effects of increased screen time. Some even expressed regret at how the subtle changes they had made to the code, somewhere in the overall scheme of things of the social media product, had had a profound effect on our relationship with our mobile devices.

Chamath Palihapathiya, the ex-Facebook VP of user growth, when addressing Stanford students in December 2017, spoke about how we have come to a point where the tools created by him and his peers “are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”   

“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth and it’s not an American problem, it's not about Russian ads, this is a global problem. So, we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion,” said Palihapathiya while expressing guilt at having helped build products at Facebook which exploit human behaviour.

Dark UX design and digital loneliness: How technology is weaponised to keep you hooked on to social media

Representational Image. Unsplash

Sean Parker, one of the earliest investors in Facebook, commented towards the end of 2017 on the addictive nature of Facebook.

"It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," said Parker. He also acknowledged how one of the major building blocks of most social media platforms was the ability to consume your attention and time.

Engagement, time-spent and other metrics in the attention economy

As the app world exploded, we transitioned from feature phones to smartphones and as mobile networks started offering faster mobile internet speeds, we ended up with portable computers in our pockets.

In a pre-smartphone world, getting online was a task. Turn on your PC or desktop, log in to your social media site of choice and share your updates. Before the smartphone era, we were not slaves to app notifications. Before smartphones, doing anything online still required some amount of appointment scheduling. With a smartphone which is on you everywhere you go, all you have to do is unlock your device to get interacting with it.

Notifications are like those friends waiting at the door, calling you out to party, just when you are about to sit down to work. More often than not, you are persuaded enough to at least go talk to them, if not drop your work and just go ahead with the partying.

Persuasive technology is a whole branch of user experience design which looks at how computers can be used to change the way we act and think. Examples of persuasive tech? Those incessant notifications that prompt you to open Facebook. The ‘next episode’ tab showing up after you finish with one episode on Netflix to egg you on to binge watch the entire season. ‘Buyers also bought these items’ prompt on Amazon. The slot-machine-like interface of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, which always throw up new content on refreshing the page.

Persuasive technology had noble goals when it started, but it has soon turned into a weapon which these social media companies use deftly to keep you hooked on to their platforms. 

Noble objectives turned rogue

The creator of the infinite scrolling feature, Aza Raskin, had a noble intention when he went about designing this feature. It all started with just helping users not bother with clicking next page when they came to the bottom of a screen.

“We already know what your intention is, and we started loading the next page. Think of the designer as a kind of magician. And a magician knows the blind spot of the people he is working with,” Raskin said at the SXSW 2019 conference on Digital Loneliness. This almost resonated with what Parker had said about social media networks being like social-validation feedback loops — exactly the kinds of things that hackers like him would try to exploit, as it was akin to exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.

According to Raskin, time worth 200,000 human lifetimes is wasted on a daily basis due to our act of infinite scrolling. User experience (UX) design now involves using knowledge of the human mind to get one addicted.

“When you look at Snapchat Streaks, it turns out that kids will give up their passwords to their friends so that they don’t lose the Snapchat Streak. So it goes from being just a cute number to something through which children want to quantify the value of their friendship,” said Raskin.

Apps don’t just stop at that though. Sometimes the addiction gets to even stranger levels — such as paying a plastic surgeon to make you look like your Snapchat filter!

In the last 20 years, ‘Fame’, has become one of the most important things we care about. A major part of this has to do with the social media products that have been created by Silicon Valley, according to Raskin, which are making us spend as much time in our digital environments as we do in the physical environment.

FOMO is a great way to hook someone

Raskin went on to explain how the fear of missing out (FOMO) is actually a great way to hook people.

“Here’s an example from Facebook: Why do you think you get the prompt to tag somebody? Well, if you aren’t engaging with Facebook, then Facebook will find a photo where you are, show it to one of your friends, and ask them to tag you. Now you get tagged and get an email about that. This prompts you to look at your picture and re-engage with Facebook. So, in a way, these apps are hacking us as human social animals,” said Raskin. A quick run through your Facebook timeline will show you many examples of how it is being used for self-validation. Checking in before taking a flight, that selfie at some exotic location, ‘feeling happy’ as you are about to go watch a movie, the inherent need of many people to get a reaction from their friends keeps feeding Facebook, both monetarily and metaphorically.  

As a popular saying goes, if the service is free, YOU are the product. Raskin reinforced that social media companies are using people as a resource to exploit and to generate their profits from.

His colleague, and co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, had neatly distilled this phenomenon as the race to the bottom of the brain stem, “What starts as an honest competition to make useful things that people spend time on, devolves into a race to the bottom of the brain stem to maximise the time we spend.”

On being asked if Silicon Valley was responsible for the growing loneliness epidemic being seen in teens these days, Raskin said that it was difficult to point out to the exact causality, but some things were definitely true. “I think this structure is pretty incontrovertible that behind every screen or every app, there are 100-200 engineers who are doing things so that you have the feeling of checking your phone all the time. It’s by design, for sure. We are sprinkling behavioural cocaine all over the internet,” said Raskin.

Digital Loneliness on the rise

While adults may be equipped to handle this, due to work or personal commitments, teens and kids are the worst hit in this social-feedback loop.

Most teenagers across the world are already on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok or Twitter, and because their friends are also on these platforms, their time spent on this app is significantly higher than adults. With teens especially, this can create a complicated mess. In fact, Facebook once even told advertisers that it can actually exploit a teen’s vulnerable state of mind to keep them engaged on Facebook.

According to a study done by San Diego State University professor of psychology, Jean Twenge, who examined trends in how 8.2 million US teens spent time with their friends since 1970s, “It turns out that today’s teens are socialising with friends in fundamentally different ways – and also happen to be the loneliest generation on record,” are her team’s conclusions. It’s not just a US phenomenon. A BBC Loneliness Experiment survey also concluded that 16-24-year olds are the loneliest. Remember, teens today live in the most hyper-connected age ever. And yet, digital loneliness is a reality.

Gabby Frost, the 21-year-old founder of Buddy Project which pairs people as buddies in raising mental health awareness, says that teens today face a lot of mental health issues. “I think for a lot of teens, their lives revolve around their social media feed. Teens are so worried about keeping Snapchat Streaks, what their follower ratio is and how many likes they get on Instagram. I think it’s really damaging to a teen’s mental health, because as it is they’re suffering through all the issues that come with that age and puberty,” said Frost at SXSW 2019.

Studies also show how teenagers are sleeping less now, as compared to decades back, as all those waking hours are now spent being online. According to this San Diego University study led by Twenge, teens in the US are spending more time on their smart devices, which is affecting their sleeping patterns. This has also increased instances of loneliness among teens as compared to previous generations.

Teenagers and smartphones are inseparable. Image: Unsplash

Teenagers and smartphones are inseparable. Image: Unsplash

The time spent on devices is also causing teens to spend less time in face to face interactions and more time interacting on apps and social media. All this, ties in directly with mental wellbeing and the conclusions aren’t too promising.

“I think Instagram makes you feel the worst when you see people hanging out. Snapchat too, when you watch people’s Stories. Seeing people you may call your friends hanging out without inviting you, I think that is probably one of the worst things that has come out of that. There is a feeling of FOMO,” said Frost.

Recently Sophie Turner, who essayed the role of Sansa Stark in HBO series Game of Thrones, revealed how social media scrutiny led to her poor mental health and was an important factor in her fight with depression. In an interaction with Dr Phil, the 23-year old actress said how people’s negative comments on her weight and skin made her believe in them and caused a lot of mental agony.

There are more than enough examples of social media scrutiny causing mental anguish, even among famous celebrities.

Algorithms need ethical intervention

Recommendation engines are another controversial topic. While it’s great to see social media products get more intuitive and use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to predict future events, the same concept of pre-deciding what one would like has led to some really ugly situations.

Just go to YouTube and watch a video on a controversial topic and see how the recommendation engine will most likely lead you down a path of extremist content. This has been well documented and a recent report in Bloomberg stresses on how despite employee revolt YouTube continued to invest in these technologies as user-engagement was a top priority — at any cost.

Looking back on his invention of infinite scrolling, Raskin told tech2 in an email interaction, “Had I known beforehand, I would have bundled the technology with a discussion of the power the technology has to shape how we spend our lives and make sense of the world.”

Would Raskin have then invented infinite scrolling if he had taken its worst use-case scenario into consideration?

“There are real trade-offs between doing what is right and doing what makes the most money. We have societal protections against many industries for exactly this reason: think financial regulations. Humane technology closes some doors but opens many more; we should expect a surge in innovation as we start to design in a way that uplifts our humanity instead of debasing it,” said Raskin.

Daniel Klaus is the CEO of Airtime, which is a group calling app trying to duplicate the experience of actually being together with your friends with an added content play. This company was formed by the same duo who created Napster — Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. Airtime does not have any sort of feed which Klaus believes is one of the major reasons for the cause of digital loneliness among users, as there is always an element of FOMO associated with feeds. Especially when some moments from the past get amplified.

On being asked about the impact of ethical thinking before innovation and redesigning UX elements, Klaus told tech2 that all products and services went through an evolutionary phase and it’s difficult to predict beforehand always.

“For example, when the horse buggy was invented, we probably had no idea that sports cars would kill people from drunk driving in the future. Fast forward 10 years from Facebook’s inception in the realm of social media, and we are just now able to see the unintended consequences of these products. It’s not all bad though, and I do believe that initial intentions were good,” said Klaus.

Digital Wellbeing features: Really worthy or mere lip-service?

When Valley engineers and stalwarts themselves started the discussion on smartphone addiction and screen time, technology giants such as Google and Apple wasted no time in announcing digital wellbeing features on their smartphones. Digital wellbeing apps have been available on the Play Store as well as the App Store, but by integrating these features natively within the operating systems, Google and Apple both acknowledged that increased screen time wasn’t really a good thing and launched Digital Wellbeing and Screen Time respectively. Instagram and Facebook also added a feature to let you limit the amount of time you spend on its app. 

On the surface, this may seem like lip service, as the entire business model of these companies and app makers is to ensure you are spending all your waking hours on their platforms. But will this really change the narrative?

“These are baby steps, but baby steps that should be celebrated as the first time these companies are taking responsibility for the impact of their products on our well being,” said Raskin.

Earlier this May, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes also called for the break up of Facebook and wrote a detailed manifesto as to how one can go about it. Facebook owns Instagram which is easily one of the most popular social media platforms amongst teens. Hughes wants the government to undo Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Silicon Valley, which gave us all these wonderful products which are now a leading cause of mental health issues, is suddenly seeing many engineers speak up. Will this be a sustained movement and will social media companies take concrete steps to cut down on the dark user experience on their platforms, is something only time will tell. But it’s about time these discussions took centre stage in India as well, where there is hardly any major study or data, looking at social media and the rise in depression amongst Indian youth.

With around 400 million Indians expected to be on social media by 2021, it’s high time this happened.

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