The Addictive Trap: The Dark Side Of Messaging Apps


It’s without a doubt that social media has transformed the way we communicate with each other. There is a growing concern among health experts about the use of social networking apps, especially Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. We are using these apps every day without knowing how addictive they can be or how our private information is handled by the tech giants.

This scholarly paper beautifully articulates how Facebook tricks its users into clicking the “like” button to entice us into its addictive world. “Facebook is free to use because we are not the customers. Instead, advertisers are the customers, and our attention is what’s being sold. Think about it: the more time you spend on a social media platform, the more opportunities there are for the platform to show you ads. Every minute you spend on social media is a minute spent making money for someone else.”

Addictive and habit forming

Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, three of the most popular platforms owned by Meta, have come under scrutiny for their deceptive strategies.

Many users find themselves glued to their screens, unable to resist the constant scrolling and endless content. Crafted with precision, their designs keep us locked in an endless cycle of scrolling, tapping, and refreshing, and keeping us hooked, sacrificing our precious time and attention. A recent survey found that on average, Americans check their phones 262 times per day.

If you’ve been a Facebook user for more than a few years, you’ve probably noticed that the site has been expanding its criteria for notifications. When you first join Facebook, your notification center revolves around the initial set of connections you make, creating that crucial link between notification and social reward. But as you use Facebook more and begin interacting with various groups, events, and artists, that notification center will also become more active. After a while, you’ll be able to open the app at any time and reasonably expect to be rewarded. When paired with the low cost of checking your phone, you have a pretty strong incentive to check in whenever you can.

Source: Harvard University

Peter Mezyk, an app developer at Nomtek, told Business Insider “The success of an app is often measured by the extent to which it introduces a new habit. Three criteria are required to form a habit: sufficient motivation, an action, and a trigger”.

These approaches. are now standard among app developers, is based on the Fogg Behavior model, established by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg, Mezyk told.

The reason some apps are addictive is that most companies first ask themselves how they can make money with them — but ethical app development focuses on the user.

– Peter Mezyk, app developer at Nomtek on Business Insider

The enormous personal data these apps collect is reportedly used to “manipulate our brain chemistry. These tricks are borrowed straight from casinos and slot machines, which are widely considered to be some of the most addictive machines ever invented”.

Mezyk groups all the social networking apps into two groups: painkiller, and supplemental apps.

  • Supplement apps. “Solve specific problems, streamline things, and make our lives easier — for example, traffic, banking, and translation apps, which we use quite sporadically and fleetingly.
  • Painkiller apps. “They typically generate a stimulus, which usually revolves around negative emotions such as loneliness or boredom. The potential for addiction is considerably heightened when we use “painkiller apps” rather than “supplement apps”.

Myzek told Insider “Facebook is a good example of a supplement app that can quickly transform into a painkiller when you begin to get to the stage where you can’t manage without it any longer”.

Ex-employees speak

Several ex-employees of Apple, Google, and Facebook have warned that large tech companies deliberately design their top apps to be addictive, because “the more time you spend on the app, the more profit it generates”. These ex-employee told the New York Times “tech giants try to maximize the time you spend on an app to maximize their profit, regardless of its impact on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of its users”.

“I feel tremendous guilt… I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. He himself rarely uses Facebook, and that his children ‘aren’t allowed to use that sh*t’.”

– Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth (source: BBC Science Focus)

Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, told at a talk at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business “I feel tremendous guilt… I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. He himself rarely uses Facebook, and that his children ‘aren’t allowed to use that sh*t‘.”

Dopamine effect

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is at the heart of all of our habits. Ramsay Brown, co-founder and chief operations officer at Boundless Mind, a tech start-up, told that their products tap into our brain’s dopamine system to push us towards action we actually want to take part, which provide us positive experiences.

“Every time we check our social media feeds and find something novel or exciting waiting for us (in other words, every time we check social media), our brains release dopamine, which tells our brains that checking social media is worth doing again. And when you add in notifications and alerts, it isn’t long before our brains begin to release dopamine just in anticipation of checking our phones,” explains the article.

For example, dopamine triggers are baked into the design of the social media apps, such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

‘Like’ buttons take advantage of both our desire for social validation and our love of seeing our ‘score’. Gamification elements, such as Snapchat’s ‘streaks’ feature, which publicly keeps track of how many days in a row you’ve used the app, make users feel compelled to check their apps every day in order to keep up their rating.

– Source: BBC Science Forum

“Our phones and apps also take advantage of our inherent social impulses and anxieties, including our fear of missing out (FOMO) and the impression that we need to reciprocate when we feel someone has done something for us. Take, for example, those ticks on Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms that indicate when your friend has read your message. Your friend knows you’ve seen those ticks, so there’s now a social pressure for them to respond. You might even get emails telling you that you have unread messages and notifications, piling on the pressure to log in, lest you miss out on some news or leave someone hanging. And then there are those little dots that indicate when someone is in the process of replying to your message. What’s the likelihood you’re going to put down your phone before you’ve seen their response?,” explain the BBC article.

“If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in.

– Chamath Palihapitiya to his Stanford audience (Source: BBC Science Forum)

Kevin Holesh, creator of the Moment app, told BBC “Social media isn’t designed with your long-term happiness in mind: it’s designed to capture as much of your attention as possible right now.”

Harvard advises that because “smartphones and social media apps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, it is up to us as the users to decide how much of our time we want to dedicate to them”. It’s time to ask “Is this really worth my time?”

Lastly, when we’re taking on risky endeavors, like sports, mountain climbing, or using online social networking apps, it’s crucial to stay up-to-date on how to engage ourselves safely while being cognizant of the potential risks and trade-offs involved and adjusting our exposure accordingly. We need to be careful about what we share and should seriously consider using other apps that do the same thing and give privacy a higher priority.

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