Have you ever wondered how much lifetime you spend on social media?
According to this meta-analysis, it’s around two hours every day. And while you might think two hours a day is reasonable, the time adds up. By the age of 50, you’ll have spent more than 4 entire years on LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any social invention of the future.
“If you are not paying for the product, you are the product,” Jaron Lanier, a computer philosophy writer, said in a social media docudrama. In 2017, I co-founded a company against screen addiction and spent weeks researching addictive technology, persuasive design, and hooking mechanisms. And yet, Lanier’s words made me pause.
In our so-called attention economy, businesses make money by developing technology that attracts and retains attention for as long as possible. The more attention a social media platform can get from you, the more attractive its advertising space becomes, and the more it can charge its advertisers. We feel the platform is free to use, while we pay with our life’s limited attention.
This article is not going to teach you how to spend less time on your phone. Instead, it shows you the most common hooking mechanisms. Knowing them will help you identify platforms that use you as a product.
1) Red Notification Badges Alert Your Senses
20 years ago, Apple introduced with its Mac OS X the first version of the red notification badge — tiny, red, rounded, with numbers inside. Today, the red icon is almost everywhere. There are red dots next to the apps on your home screen and the horizontal toolbar of almost any social media platform.
When you see the red notification badge, you know there’s something you need to check: new activities, messages you need to reply to, people liking or commenting on your pictures, people who mentioned you, people that started following you, contact requests, or important announcements.
And the surprise factor behind the notification number makes these tiny red notification badges so powerful. You investigate because they could mean anything: a career-boosting email from your boss, a reminder for your hair dresser’s appointment today; a message from your crush; or a family member checking in with you.
This psychological strategy tells you that there’s information you want to know but requires you to click through to the site to find out more.
“Red is a trigger color,” design ethicist Tristan Harris said in an interview with the Guardian. “That’s why it is used as an alarm signal.” When you see such a badge, you need to click on it. It’s a visual form of screaming, shouting something like “hey, click on me; I’m important, you’re important.”
“I’ve met dots that existed only to inform me of the existence of other dots, new dots, dots with almost no meaning at all.”
— John Herrman in the New York Times
2) Pull-to-Refresh Works Like A Slot Machine
B.F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, experimented with mice on incentives and rewards in the 1950s. What he found led to a mechanism all social media platforms use: the intermittent variable reward.
Skinner discovered mice respond compulsively to random rewards. The mice would press a lever and sometimes got a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards pressed the lever compulsively.
Just like lab mice in Skinner’s box, we respond most voraciously to random rewards.
We crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. And that’s why we continue to pull-to-refresh. We don’t know when we’ll be rewarded. Most of the time, we won’t find anything noteworthy. But just like with gambling, we continue to refresh in the hope of a quick dopamine shot.
“You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing.”
— Tristan Harris in one of his essays
3) There’s No End to Infinite Scrolling Design
As we’ve established, nothing holds our attention better than the unknown. And that’s why often find ourselves subconsciously scrolling through social media apps for entire hours. Translating scrolling time into scrolling distance, this report shows we scroll for more than 200 meters per day.
According to Nir Eyal, the author of two best-selling books on persuasive design, wrote in Psychology Today, “The infinite scroll is interaction design’s answer to our penchant for endlessly searching for novelty.”
One finger flick away, we continue searching in the uncertainty of what’s next. Using platforms that deploy infinite scrolls can feel like solving a mystery, looking for a final puzzle piece. And during the aimless search, we give away much of our lifetime.
“Time worth 200,000 human lifetimes are wasted on a daily basis due to our act of infinite scrolling.”
— Aza Raskin, creator of the infinite scroll in an interview
4) Push Notifications Recapture Your Attention
If you’ve watched the Social Dilemma of Netflix, you might remember the following scene: two friends talk to each other in a cafeteria. Then, one gets a notification and checks in with his phone. Shortly after, both friends stare at their screens and disengage with the physical world around them.
“If you disengage, you get peppered with little messages or bonus offers to get your attention and pull you back in.”
— Natasha Schüll, author of Addiction by Design.
Push notifications remind you to go back to a social platform. Something ‘exciting’ happened, something you shouldn’t miss. A friend posted a photo or tagged you in a story. You can’t help yourself but see it.
“The vast majority of push notifications are just distractions that pull us out of the moment,” Justin Rosenstein, the co-creator of the like button, said in an interview with Vice. “They get us hooked on pulling our phones out and getting lost in a quick hit of information that could wait for later, or doesn’t matter at all.”
For you, push notifications are disturbing. For the platforms using them, they’re a great tool. According to a report from analytics company Urban Airship, sending out weekly notifications doubles the app-retention on mobile operating systems.
5) Algorithmic Filtering Monetizes Your Mood
Have you ever wondered why you spend more time on your newsfeed than you intended to? Algorithmic filtering is the answer. Platforms like Facebook developed machine learning algorithms that study your behavior on the platform.
So-called ‘Text mining’ enables social media platforms to analyze your emotions. It’s common practice to record what you like and record how long you hover over a certain post. In this way, platforms do not only know what you’re interested in but also what mood you are in.
This 2019 study from two German Universities concluded Facebook has a great interest in studying your behavior as detailed as possible. At best, you only see interesting information in your ‘Newsfeed.’ Filtering information to maximize your engagement stops you from leaving the app.
6) Social Validation Makes You Want To Stay
One of the most prominent features of social reward mechanisms is the iconic ‘thumbs up.’ According to this 2019 study, a ‘like’ demonstrates positive social feedback on one’s own post or gives another person such feedback.
A group of neuroscientists investigated our brain’s responses to social validation. Instagram users were confronted with their own posted pictures. These pictures were manipulated by being presented either with many or few ‘Likes.’ When the participants saw more likes on their pictures, their brains showed greater activity in neural regions for reward processing, social cognition, and imitation. And that’s why we keep posting our pictures.
“We were not evolved to get social approval being dosed upon us every 5 minutes.”
— Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook Executive
With each tweet and post, we wonder how much social validation we’ll receive. This goes as far as quantifying our social influences with tools like Klout. And above all, it means we adapt our public behavior on the platforms to receive the maximum amount of recognition.
Persuasive design and addictive technology will continue to exist. There will always be tools competing for your attention. Yet, knowing the key mechanisms behind social media platforms can help you identify software that takes away your time. Watch out for:
- Notification Badges
- Pull-to-Refresh Triggers
- Infinite Scrolling
- Push Notifications
- Algorithmic Filtering
- Social Validation Cues
And whatever you do, charge your phone outside of your bedroom and keep Tristan Harris words in mind:
“Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that that happens?”