A former Facebook executive recently described social media as perpetuating “dopamine feedback loops” that are “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” The World Health Organization plans to add “gaming disorder” to its list of mental health conditions, characterizing some video game use as an addictive behavior. Research has even shown that smart phone use alters brain chemistry to the point that cognitive and emotional function might be impaired. As a recent New York Times piece opined, “It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone,” in response to an open letter asking Apple to do more to address the effect of their products on children.
As startling as it sounds, all of this is happening because technology is designed to work this way: to hook into the pleasure and reward centers in the brain, capture our attention, and keep us coming back for more. Reports are coming out that even social media bosses have quit their own product due to their adverse effects.
As a result, Silicon Valley “digital detox” events and retreats have become a popular function. Some app developers have begun consulting non-profits focusing on tech addiction to make their apps more mindful and less focused on hooking users.
Yet this issue doesn’t stop at mobile devices. It doesn’t stop at changing how a phone delivers notifications, or at stepping away from your tablet for a weekend, because technology is not going to stay in our pockets or on our desks. The progress of virtual reality (VR) promises that will become ever-more immersive, while implantable chips will bring technology into our very bodies. Experts say that the ethical move would be for designers to adapt principles, now, that encourage their consumers to disengage from the technology they’re creating. But will developers ever want to?
“It’s easy to take advantage of consumers if you understand what drives them to engage,” Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, told Futurism. Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, and studies how stimuli from our environment can impact human decision-making and behavior.
He explained that the standard rule for technology based on engagement is to test different features, such as color choice or the amount of notifications that an app delivers, and choose the feature that encourages the most engagement. But that isn’t how it has to be.
“Instead of adopting this rule blindly, developers could combine it with a sort of Hippocratic Oath, the medical philosophy of, above all else, doing no harm to patients,” Alter said. Developers could instead weigh the potential psychological, social, or financial harm that a feature could cause against the benefits of that tech – “and I’d argue that harms often outweigh benefits in the tech world,” he says.
Followers of this oath would favor features that are perhaps slightly less engaging, but more consumer-friendly. This may be particularly necessary when it comes to VR games and programs, where it could become easy for users to lose themselves within another world.
Max Stossel, Head of Content & Storytelling for Time Well Spent, a non-profit with the aim of making technology’s impact less addictive and more positive, told Futurism that “the more engaging the medium, the more important it is to consider” the benefits and detriments. “That’s one of the reasons we’re so passionate about changing the infrastructure of our digital world, because these technologies are only going to get more engaging.”
Virtual platforms can have a measurable, positive impact on our non-virtual lives; indeed, VR has already been put to such uses, such as helping people regain motion in their limbs or overcome phobias.
For other uses of VR, such as gaming, Alter added that the best thing VR designers could do would be to build in natural breaks to the game, like chapter breaks in a book or between television episodes.
“You aren’t necessarily forcing the user to quit at each break, but the break itself gently suggests that it might be time to move on,” Alter explains. He added that it would also be important to avoid unnecessary cliffhangers and incomplete story lines, which encourage “binging rather than enjoyment.”
Not everyone agrees that measures to reduce technological engagement are necessary.
“Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’ That’s silly,” Nir Eyal, a product design consultant and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, told The Atlantic. “With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.”
Whether this is true or not, there are also few incentives for product developers to ditch a system that makes them money — namely, one that monetizes the amount of time you spend on a site or game, through advertising or otherwise. A company like Apple (which told The New York Times that they are developing features to reduce device addiction) can afford to design more consumer-friendly phones, since their primary source of income is initial hardware purchase. The same is not true for content developers.
“There are literally thousands of developers fighting for our very limited attention spans, so any company that abandons a particular hook for a friendlier approach will be swamped by its competitors,” said Alter. “The only way to ensure companies design consumer-friendly tech is to a) educate consumers so they know how to identify predatory practices; b) encourage consumers to pressure tech companies to design friendlier tech (just as consumers recently pressured Apple and Facebook to redesign their products); and c) to consider legislative intervention that defines what tech companies can and can’t do to encourage engagement.”
Yet our current conundrum can also be viewed in a more positive light: as an “opportunity to create a market where the […] applications that are most successful are the ones that really create lasting benefits in people’s lives,” Stossel said. “Imagine how empowering that market could be… the market that’s competing to best serve you, vs. the market that’s competing to grab as much of your time as possible.” He asked: “Which world would you want to live in?”