After a sleepless night spent waiting for sneakers online with her nephew, our journalist goes to Bournemouth's University research centre for Digital Addiction. She will discover attitudinal softwares and the commercial importance of dopamine, both at the core of our smartphone addictions.
[read the french version]
The double-decker buses in Bournemouth, a coastal city two-hours train ride from London, are usually full of summer tourists, but on this sunny September day, it is ferrying freshman students about to embark on their university studies. On first impression Bournemouth city does not exude excitement nor indicate there is much happening. The Italian girl serving us a drink at the cafeteria next to the central bus station agreed: “There’s not much to do here.”
However, this first impression and unseemly façade disguises some cutting edge research taking place at Bournemouth University’s Research Center for Digital Addiction – the reason for my visit after that memorable night trying to buy sneakers with my nephew. I wanted to understand how technology is manipulating our lives.
What made a visit to this particular research lab necessary was their proposition to fight digital addiction with more and not less technology - an antithesis to the “normal” prescription of less technology to mitigate addiction. Moreover, the research center is a melting pot of many nationalities which hopefully means their work and discussions are filtered through the various perspectives incorporating experiences from across the world. The Center is led by Prof. Raian Ali, a 40-year-old Syrian computer scientist with a Ph.D. from the University of Trento in Italy and a postgraduate research from University of Limerick, Ireland.
— At least they were on a train and not driving! smiled Aarif Alutaybi, a 34-year Saudi software engineer trained in Australia after I shared the experience of my train journey to Bournemouth where most passengers were glued to their screens, barely lifting their heads. I decided to come here after seeing lots of people in my country getting hurt in car accidents because they didn’t look up as they stay glued to their devices while crossing the streets, he goes on.
— That doesn’t happen by chance at all, continues Prof. Raian Ali.
— Car accidents? I ask.
— No, people not able to put their phones down. The current design of technology incorporates social psychology, cyber-psychology and social engineering. It uses the knowledge of how people think and take decisions to influence their actions. The result is behavioral change software or attitudinal software; it wants you to act in a certain way, experience certain things, and increase your desire to come back for more.
— This software wants us to do something? I ask.
— It sure does, explains Prof. Raian Ali. It all comes from Robert Cialdini, the Italian scientist whose principles on how to influence people have shaped marketing and commercials for decades. (Robert Cialdini is the 74-year-old social psychologist and world-famous author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, a seminal work on persuasion published in 1983.) He stated influence is based on six principles - reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Now, these principles are being used in combination with technology.
— So, are you saying, we are unconsciously taking orders from attitudinal software?
— Yes. Take for example the apps we use. The concept of ‘Stories’ from social media apps are engineered using Cialdini’s first principle of scarcity. When you tell people that a story will be available only for a few hours or minutes, they will check it compulsively in case they are missing something.
— Yes, I’ve seen that happening, I concur.
— Another example is the personalized memories and albums that Facebook creates in order to make you go back through your pictures and share them again. This comes out of Cialdini’s principle on commitment and consistency. In other words, if you are committed, i.e. repost old pictures and videos, Facebook and other social media networks can build an intimate relation with you. This goes hand in hand with reciprocity, meaning, the more you use the social media network, the more it will give back to you.
— How? I ask.
— Take YouTube for instance, how often have you seen a video and YouTube recommends you another one based on what you just saw? This is because the more you watch videos on YouTube, the more it knows about you, and thus offers you content that would fit your interests. You do not even have to voluntarily start the second video, it goes on auto-play and continues non-stop. Neal Mohan, chief product officer at YouTube, said that ‘70% of views on the platform are from AI-recommended videos.’
— This is scarily fascinating!
— Another example is the principle known as social proof. When you go to a hotel and you read 99% of its clientele reuse their towels, you feel the need to comply as well because of the social expectation/pressure to act similarly. This is social proof and is the basis for social network interactions. If a post has 20,000 likes, you are more likely to read it than one that has 5 likes.
— How is this any different from previous TV/product/brand marketing and PR? Aren’t these generic principles already being used in television ads and sales promotions? Why are we much more “devoted” to our smartphones? I probe.
What do you do if you WhatsApp someone and they don’t answer you right away?
— Technology amplifies the volume, the density, and the speed. It is also different because of the ability to personalize ads. TV and other similar advertisements are for everyone, but ads from websites, apps and social networks are tailored just for you. They notify you all the time and keep you hooked. In short, artificial intelligence is following you and knows more about you than anyone else.
— How many notifications did you receive today? he continued.
— Before I came here I checked my phone and saw 131 from yesterday, despite disabling those from social media and emails.
— According to a 2014 study, he explains further, people received an average of 63.5 notifications a day. Today on WhatsApp alone people receive 55 billion messages worldwide every day.
— Notifications are quintessential, adds Sainabou Cham, a 39-year old Nigerian who also works on the project. Every time you hear a notification you feel the need to check. The urge is greater depending on the importance of the person messaging you. Social recognition is ignited at any time and it is part of the game.
— Are you implying, notifications are tools that influence our psychic?
— Yes. What do you do if you WhatsApp someone and they don’t answer you right away? You will start asking yourself why they are ignoring you. You won’t be able to stop checking for the reply. It is the same with the little dots that appear when someone is texting you: they are designed to keep you there waiting…. And, boy, do they work!
— The fear of missing social recognition is a very powerful emotion,” adds Aarif. His study focuses on understanding the Fear Of Missing Out (commonly known as FOMO), a syndrome defined scientifically as a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences while you are not there. Needless to say, FOMO is especially prevalent on social media and pushes you to stay continuously connected with what others are doing.
In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health, a UK independent health education charity, conducted a survey of 1,479 young people aged 14-24 years. It found that four out of the five most used social media platforms actually worsened feelings of anxiety. Instagram is the worst of all. The report found that seeing friends constantly on holidays, or enjoying nights out can make young people feel they are missing out while others enjoy life. These feelings can promote a ‘compare and despair’ attitude. Individuals may view heavily photoshopped, edited or staged photographs and videos and compare them to their seemingly mundane lives.
Aarif further elaborates that social networks have their own rush hour which is approximately from 6 to 8 pm. At this “Peak Time” some people panic if their posted pictures do not get the expected number of likes. They start taking a post off from one platform and reposting it to another. Overwhelmed by anxiety, they question and doubt the quality of the picture or filters wondering why it is not garnering more likes.
— When you say ‘people’ who are you talking about? Teenagers?
— This is not a kid-only thing, Aarif explains. In his research he came across 20-somethings who rang friends asking what is happening on Snapchat when they found themselves without internet and all this just to reduce the anxiety generated by their Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). But the negative effects do not stop there. The problem is not only that we check our phones all the time, but even when we are not doing that, we are still thinking about it. ‘What am I missing?’ ‘Is there a message for me?’ ‘Who’s has been looking for me?’ If you can’t control what is happening, you think about it.
Some brands exploit vulnerabilities because people are left with no time to think of what they want and actually need.
— By the way, he adds smilingly, the first thing you asked when you arrived was whether we have Wi-Fi, driving the point home. You may have been worried about missing out too and wanting to stay connected.
That made me automatically glance at my phone while I tried to understand why I am programmed to do exactly what I am now doing!
— None of you has been explicit about it, but your words indicate the tech industry is no longer about engineers. It also includes psychologists. Do they actually teach how to program addictive software in schools?
Elvira Bolat, who teaches and researches digital marketing with a Ph.D on the use of mobile technology, breaks into the conversation:
— Previously, digital marketing concentrated on “look and feel” of apps such as ease of navigation, quality of pictures etc. Nowadays, it is much more sophisticated. The focus is on user experience (UX). It has moved towards a broad psychological experience starting from the customer journey, which is about understanding consumer behavior, through to customer profiling and much more. Some brands have become very good at integrating their customers’ journeys and users’ personalities into to their digital marketing. This enables them to shape and influence a customer’s journey the entire day.
I acknowledged and shared the story of my nephew and his quest for a pair of sneakers.
— It doesn’t surprise me, says Elvira. Some brands exploit vulnerabilities because people are left with no time to think of what they want and actually need.
— Indeed. My nephew got bombarded with so many notifications about those sneakers, he ended up wanting them desperately.
— This is the result of an extremely powerful marketing campaign.
— Are psychologists taking over tech engineers? I ask.
— These disciplines are now so intertwined it’s hard to think of them separately, says Elvira. Marketers study web design, psychologists study business, and IT software engineers study both marketing and psychology. This can be great, but it can also end up becoming dangerous.
— Of course psychologists work for the industry, they have been doing it for a long time and that is part of the problem! interjects Prof. Raian Ali with slightly raised voice attracting the room’s other occupants.
Social media, gaming and gambling industries are all selling dopamine to people in order to change behavior and habits.
He went on to describe a psychologist by the name of BJ Fogg whose nickname is “The man who created billionaires” because commercial websites and social media companies relied heavily on his research.
Prof. Raian Ali believes this is not ethical because the social media, the gaming and gambling industries are all selling dopamine to people in order to change behavior and habits.
— What do you mean by selling dopamine? I ask.
— Dopamine is an organic chemical that works in the brain as a neurotransmitter. It is released by neurons and passes across small gaps between each neuron, the synapses, and sends signals from the central nervous system. There are many dopamine-pathways in the brain, but one is specifically tied to the motivational component of reward-based behavior. When something gives us pleasure, like a good experience, the brain releases dopamine. The tech industry stimulates this dopamine release using ‘instant gratifications and rewards’ such as likes, hearts, tags, engagement visibility, notifications etc. People gratified by these experiences want it again, and as a result spend more time on social media networks in a similar fashion as people playing more video-games or gambling more.
— Well thankfully, not all psychologists and researchers are in the pockets of the industry, argues Elvira. It is a minority. Besides, she asks, why shouldn’t she work for industry when she is done with her research?
— The problem needs to be dealt with; it is like alcoholism, replies Alutaybi, the Saudi engineer.
According to Cham, the Nigerian researcher, the problem will grow and will require government intervention and policy just like other addictions. However, she believes the same people creating these addictive apps and software can also develop the solution for these problems. Psychologists have a saying she says: “We also teach the industry to persuade people to be in control of their experience, but the industry just doesn’t activate such mechanisms.”
It is clear this is a contentious topic amongst the team. It was time to cool off and take a break. We stepped outside into the clear, warm September day surrounded by the cacophony of excited chattering and laughter of the students on their first day at university.
My best definition of digital addiction is the inability to generate happiness naturally where happiness is always dependent on somebody else’s reaction.
Throughout the day I kept asking myself why it was that only after coming here to meet these experts , was I able to learn this important lesson, given its relevance to everyone, not least parents.
As we continue our conversation, Prof. Raian Ali explains that Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist who left the company, was the first one to acknowledge the danger of combining psychology with technology. Harris calls these new methods persuasive, deceptive, and addictive.
— Giving it a name is important for everybody. Digital persuasion is a problem with all platforms be it e-commerce, websites, or blogs even though we are mostly talking about it in the context of social media. All apps are fighting for our attention because our attention has become monetized. It all comes down to money as always, the Professor concludes.
— But addiction is a strong word, Cham clarifies. We mostly use it in an informal way. Real addicts are those whose real life, or at least certain aspects of it, has been taken over by the digital world. All the rest is called problematic usage. It is also not about screen time. My best definition of digital addiction is the inability to generate happiness naturally where happiness is always dependent on somebody else’s reaction.
Irrespective of the level of ‘addiction’, mood modification, or reliance on digital gratification, our non-stop online presence signals an ‘insane’ relationship with the digital world. Preoccupied with our phones, we often find ourselves in conflict trying to juggle and divide our attention at the same time: cooking while WhatsApping, missing our bus stop because we are scrolling through Instagram, not to mention calling or Facetiming while driving. How often have we not seen couples sitting in restaurants looking at their phones instead at each-other, parents neglecting their crying kids while texting frantically, and teenagers oblivious to the world around them stuck online inside all day.
In their research the team at Bournemouth University found some people experienced the real world as “pale”. Studies show a relationship between digital addiction and depression. In the Bournemouth research, people were reluctant to admit they have a problem. There is a denial all around, a clear sign of addiction according to the research team.
Digital well-being has also been acknowledged after 10-years of denying the problem by the likes of Google, Instagram, Facebook, Apple and other big tech companies. They now pretend technology should not undermine people’s well-being. But, Prof. Raini surmises the truth is slightly different:
— They want to remain our friends. They will not get the data they want if we scroll down without paying attention.
Will you be able to look at something different if AI is only amplifying your present or past interests?
— Wait for the new apps and the artificial intelligence to come, adds Elvira. Soon you will just type one letter and the algorithm will be able to finish the phrase for you knowing all your previous searches, written and shared material. Nobody denies this can be helpful, but the question is, at that point will you stop wanting more of the same? Will you be able to look at something different if AI is only amplifying your present or past interests? Will AI stop you from experiencing new and different things or hear opinions and views different than yours? What about the things you never even thought of wanted before?
These questions stayed with me as we wrapped up our day. The students head back home and will undoubtedly dive into social media. My hosts for the day will return to their computer screens too and try to tackle all the unanswered emails and another messages they ignored all day. As for myself, I too started looking at the many messages and notifications I missed: an app reminds me I am missing my yoga class, another tells me I am late paying a ticket, a notification tells me a friend recommends me a book, and my family wants to know where I have disappeared all day long!
Yet every time I pick up my phone to do whatever action it is suggesting I do, I am reminded of Elvira’s questions: what about our free will and diversity of choice. Where do we go from here?
Edited by Thomas Hepher and Kookie Habtegaber