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3 Jun 2021

Can’t Put Down Your Phone? Here’s Why It’s Not Really Your Fault.

You’ve probably heard that the internet is bad for you, with countless articles telling you to get off and go on a digital detox.

But what if we told you that internet addiction is not entirely your fault?

Popular Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, has recently exposed how big social media companies are using algorithms to encourage addiction to their platforms. The documentary, which features tech engineers who helped build social media platforms, reveals how social media addiction isn’t an unintended consequence; rather, it’s a well thought-out business objective.

In this article, we explain how algorithms, user design and technology motivate you to stay glued to your phone 24/7 — all without you realising.

#1. The algorithm operates like a rabbit-hole 

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Every social media platform has its own algorithm; a series of coding that sorts your social media postings based on your behaviour (online activity). There’s a common myth that social media algorithms showcase contents that you like but The Social Dilemma has proven otherwise.

In reality, the algorithm operates as a ‘rabbit’s hole’. It digs deep into the web looking for something close to what you like but different enough to offer something new and interesting. For example, the recent shift in Instagram’s algorithm only shows posts you interact with the most and similar content that you engage with as opposed to the previous algorithm that shows your feed in chronological order.

This strategy keeps you glued to your phone in hopes you’ll find more interesting things. So, it explains how you’d find yourself in the deepest end of YouTube, Reddit or any shopping website.

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#2. It uses positive reinforcement to keep you scrolling 

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Receiving texts from friends or notifications from your social platforms is one way to get you to reach for your phone faster than light. According to studies, these interactions create a feeling of instant gratification that makes you seek for more. In fact, it’s purposely designed that way to keep you active online.

Big social media companies are using a method called technology dopamine (or positive internet reinforcement) to get you hooked through notification features. This includes text messages, a live video on Instagram, shared posts on Facebook — even new trends on TikTok! In fact, the typing bubble or indication that someone is replying to your texts is also a way to keep you on your phone.

This addiction to your phone explains why you’d sometimes feel like your phone is buzzing when it doesn’t — a phenomenon often known as phantom vibration syndrome.

Did You Know: To counter this negative behaviour, there are programmers who are working on ethical user designs to promote good online behaviour and ensure that users aren’t being exploited for clicks or personal information. If this topic excites you, a degree in computer science is where you want to head to!

#3. It provides you with what you need

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Have you ever been in a situation where it feels like your phone can read your thoughts or hear a conversation between you and your friends? How does this explain the advertisements you receive on your social media feed based on what you’re thinking about?

No, your phone can’t read your thoughts. However, it does have a way of keeping tabs on all your online activity. This is called targeted advertising and it works by collecting your data based on the websites you visit — all through cookie preferences on your browser. For instance, you could be browsing a website for some flowers for Mother’s Day. Soon enough, you’ll notice that you’re being shown ads for a variety of gifts that are suitable for the occasion.

Businesses use cookies and such algorithms in hopes that the ads will spark your interest and purchase a product. And it works because now, you’re clicking on these advertisements wondering what else they have to offer.

Pro Tip: You don’t have to accept everything that is offered in a browser’s cookie preferences. Instead, be mindful by choosing what data you’re giving these websites access to.

You may have knowledge of this but hearing it from the minds behind these technologies pinches a little harder. So, the next time you log on to your phone, be mindful of how you’re interacting with the various apps and websites.

It’s never too late to stay off your phone! Here’s how you can banish mindless scrolling.

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