Last year, salesforce CEO Merc Benioff was quoted during the World Economic Forum saying that Facebook should be regulated the same way tobacco companies are regulated. This was in reference to the tendency of social media to be addictive, and to influence human behaviour and decision in a way no other media has achieved before. He said that products like Facebook and other social media are addictive by design, and are being made to be more and more addictive.
This proposal appears too radical, or some sort of joke. To most people, social media does not have much influence over them, and they consciously make the choice to visit the pages whenever they want. But is that true? If this is what you think of these digital media, you are likely to be one of the billions who are either ignorant or have been deceived, because these systems are designed to make you think so, while in the background they have you in strings like puppets. In Kenya, it has been reported that people aged between 21 and 35 spend an average of three hours per day on social media.
Facebook, twitter, Instagram, YouTube and others are not just some tech companies, but more of psychological think tanks. The key to their success is based on an army of user experience designers applying techniques to keep you using their products, even when you do not want to. It is like they have installed an app in your brain which directs you to open the apps and start scrolling endlessly and aimlessly, at the same time keeping an eye on the number of likes and shares your recent post is generating. This generates a good feeling in you, a sense of accomplishment when your post is shared, and an addiction that keeps you glued to the screen. How do these tech companies achieve this?
How it came to be
Dr B.J. Fogg, a psychologist at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, says that it is now possible to create machines that can change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously. These machines are then deployed by for-profit companies to help them make money. The result of this what we are having today. While social media companies started as tech companies, they realized that there is more to tech if their products were to be adopted. This is where they entered into the field of human psychology.
Behind the screens, there are psychologists, neuroscientists and social science experts who use their knowledge of human vulnerabilities to capture your attention and get you addicted. The aim is to create digital environments that make users feel fulfil their basic human drives better than real world alternatives. They motivate you to use a product, they make it very simple to do it to the extent that you do not have to think, and trigger you to keep doing it through notifications, friend requests and status updates. The notifications from social media release some dose of feel good hormones (dopamine) to the user, the same way smoking cigarette or using cocaine does.
Today, the addicts of social media are many. Like in the case of other addiction, these addicts do not consider themselves addicted. This is why you find so many people scrolling on their phones while in a meeting or engaged in a conversation. You find two friends next to each busy chatting on phones with friends far away, while neglecting the friends that are right next to them. I always find myself clicking on the WhatsApp icon even when I pick my phone to check the time. And when I am too lazy to scroll through the apps, I can easily switch to viewing status or Instagram TV which require little or no input from my end.
What are the costs and implications of these technologies today? We have people who are driving while distracted, becoming unproductive at work, and not paying attention in social conversations. We have children who are lagging behind in school, living unhealthy lifestyles and failing to develop important social skills. We have elections manipulated, increasing cases of depression, and people engaged in endless loops of posting and sharing just to get the next like. Children develop unhealthy sleeping habits, and live with an ever-present fear of missing out (FOMO). W We have people doing outrageous things just for clicks and likes. Fake news is news.
The one solution that is hard to implement is self-regulation for these tech companies. This would be a form of near self-annihilation, because they depend on you using their platforms even more for those platforms to grow.
Government regulation poses a problem because most of these big tech companies are bigger than most governments, and possess immense influence. It is also hard to strike the delicate balance between constructive regulation and stifling innovation.
Maybe, the best step is for one to carefully consider their ways and ensure that they are using these tools in a responsible way. However, the tech companies have that covered as well, as addiction starts with a deception that you are not addicted.