A slow scroll to addiction

Puruesh Chaudhary discusses the dangers of social media addiction.

Addiction is a disease of the mind and not a moral consequence. It is no longer limited to drug abuse or gambling; it exists in the excessive use of social media, the internet and dependence on technology. Online experiences can become addictive due to a combination of factors including ease of access, rewards and reinforcement, social connection, escapism and lack of regulation.

Social media addiction is no different from traditional forms of addiction. People suffering from social media addiction may spend a lot of time on their platform of choice, constantly checking their accounts and feeling anxiety or restlessness when they are unable to log on, leading them to ignore other responsibilities such as work, school or relationships.

Several studies have shown evidence of the adverse effect of excessive use of social networks. The results of the study Problematic Social Media Use and Mental Health in Adolescents (Boers et al., 2020) revealed a significant relationship between excessive use of social media and depression, anxiety and loneliness among adolescents. Another study (Kircaburun & Griffiths, 2018) explored the relationship between social media addiction, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, indicating that higher levels of social media addiction are associated with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction.

Some people are more susceptible to addiction than others and it can have many different causes including psychological, social, genetic, environmental and physical factors. While dependency categories are many, they are not always mutually exclusive and can overlap. Social media addiction and smartphone addiction may be closely related, as social media platforms are often accessed via smartphones. Likewise, online shopping addiction and online gambling addiction can involve excessive use of the Internet for the purpose of seeking pleasure or escape.

Some technologies are designed to be addictive through the use of features such as notifications, rewards and streaks, creating a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep users engaged. That said, it’s important to recognize that not all technology is addictive. It is normal and even necessary to use technology for work, communication and entertainment. The difference between healthy technology use and addiction is the degree to which it interferes with daily life and responsibilities, as well as the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when technology cannot be accessed. It is also important to recognize that the causes of technology addiction are complex and multifaceted. While boredom, anxiety, depression and social isolation are common factors, genetics, personality traits and environmental factors all play a role. A nuanced understanding of the different categories of addiction involves recognizing the potential for overlap and the importance of healthy technology use, as well as understanding the factors that contribute to technology addiction.

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added gambling disorder to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), officially recognizing it as a mental health condition characterized by a pattern of gambling behavior. This development was later reviewed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which developed the criteria for diagnosing technology addiction, also known as Internet gaming disorder (IGD).

An addictive algorithm refers to an algorithmic decision-making process that can lead to addictive behavior. The science behind addictive algorithms is based on understanding how the brain responds to rewards. The essential elements for this understanding are based on the principles of behavioral psychology; forming programmed habits through conditioning, leading to persuasive designs that influence thoughts and actions and that create neurological effects that can drive changes in mood, behavior, or sensation. For example, a dark pattern is a user interface (UI) design that intentionally misleads or manipulates users into making decisions that are not in their best interests. They are often used in online advertising and social media platforms to trick users into clicking ads, signing up for memberships, or sharing personal information. The range of some of the techniques used in design include scarcity (FOMO), urgency, social proof, authority (power of experts), and friendliness (power of association).

When we do something rewarding, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. The release of dopamine reinforces a behavior, increasing the likelihood of repeating it. Addictive algorithms are designed to exploit this reward pathway in our brains. They do this by providing us with small, frequent rewards like likes, comments and shares. These rewards are often unpredictable, which keeps us engaged and coming back for more. In addition to exploiting our reward pathway, addictive algorithms take advantage of our natural tendency to seek out novelty. They do this by constantly providing us with new content, which keeps us from getting bored. This constant stream of new content can be overwhelming; it also makes it hard to tear yourself away from the app.

The combination of these factors makes addictive algorithms very powerful. They can easily lock us into a cycle of compulsive using, even when we know our using is excessive. They are designed to keep us engaged for as long as possible in order to generate ad revenue. One of the key mechanisms underlying the addictive nature of social media algorithms is variable or unpredictable rewards, which are known to activate the brain’s dopamine system. When we receive an unpredictable or unexpected reward, our dopamine levels spike, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation, which is why they are so effective at keeping us engaged. Not only do they create that sense of unpredictability and excitement that keeps us coming back for more, but they also form habits that lead to an increase in motivation and time spent on social media platforms, along with a decrease in overall satisfaction. However, the brain responds differently to predictable rewards. Predictable rewards tend to keep our dopamine levels steady, while unpredictable rewards create a high dopamine rush in anticipation of rewards we cannot accurately predict. This is because our brains are hardwired to endlessly seek the next reward and are never satisfied. In fact, variability is the brain’s cognitive enemy, and our minds make deducing cause and effect a priority over functions like self-control and moderation. Humans crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist.

Another mechanism is the flow-inducing interface. Social media platforms are designed to be easy to use, with a simple, flow-inducing interface that encourages us to keep scrolling through content and stay engaged for as long as possible, thus encouraging addictive use. Social media platforms allow users to scroll endlessly with no clear stopping point. User specific data is used to provide personalized content that is more likely to keep us engaged as it is more relevant to our interests. Social media platforms collect data about user behavior and preferences and use this information to provide personalized content for each individual user. These mechanisms capitalize on classical conditioning and reward-based learning processes to facilitate the formation of habit loops that encourage addictive use.

Simplicity, fluidity, visual appeal and gamification are some of the characteristics of a flow-inducing interface. These interfaces can activate a number of brain chemicals associated with optimal performance and positive emotions and involve dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and endorphins.

By understanding the mechanisms underlying these algorithms, strategies can be developed to mitigate their negative effects. For example, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed guidelines for the responsible use of technology in schools. The guidelines are designed to help schools protect students from the risks of technology addiction. Regulating addictive algorithms can be challenging as there is no clear definition of what an addictive algorithm is.

While it is important to approach the topic of online experiences and mental health with compassion, it is also essential to understand that social media platforms are designed to keep us online; this is how these companies make money. While online experiences can be a great way to stay connected, overuse can fuel feelings of addiction, anxiety, depression, isolation and FOMO. It is also important to recognize that spending too much time online can potentially make us feel more isolated and lonely and that the future of the online space will be more personalised, more immersive and more accessible.

Puruesh Chaudhary is an award-winning futures researcher and strategic storytelling practitioner. She was featured among the best futurists in the world and works for AGAHI. puruesh@gmail.com

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