Did you know that you are being programmed? The social networks and media apps you use are training you to behave in a certain way. Apps and devices may seem like the quickest and easiest path to information or entertainment, but behind the facade of productivity enhancement is a slow path toward attention atrophy, screen addiction and privacy elimination.
When you turn on your phone, streaming device or computer, are you fully aware of what is happening to your brain? Do you know what is really being sold? Do you know what incentives are driving the technology?
Since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, social media has faced greater scrutiny from governments and traditional media outlets, but they have only targeted a few of the negative effects—not the underlying problem behind those negative effects.
The underlying problem is simple. The problem exists because there is only one thing that matters to the companies making the apps and, in some cases, selling the devices.
That one thing is your attention.
The media and social networking sites, and the apps they come with, are all designed with one main goal in mind: to keep us hooked.
That’s the problem. The success of these companies is built by getting large parts of the population addicted to their services.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sell themselves to us as services that help connect us with our friends and family members. Netflix, YouTube and other media platforms promise us endless entertainment and information. But the true product of these networks is not the connection with family or the information they are providing.
The true product these companies sell is you!
They make their money by using your personal data—such as age, gender, interests, careers and more—to sell ads to companies. They mine your viewing habits for valuable data to use to make their entertainment even more addictive. For example, when you watch a YouTube video, there are usually three or four videos in the queue next to your video that say “Recommended for you.” YouTube gives you videos similar to the ones you’ve watched previously, and this only increases the site’s addictive qualities.
You are the real product these companies are selling, and they need you to stay on as long as you possibly can so they can gather more data—either to sell more ads or to hook more people who like the same things you do. The bigger these networks get, the more time people spend on the networks, and the more they can sell. They are incentivized to get you hooked. That is how their company succeeds.
Former executives are now admitting it!
Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, explained the thought process behind building these applications in an interview with the news website Axios. He boiled it down to one question: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” The companies have answered that question by hacking into the way the human mind works.
Have you ever completed a hard workout and felt a rush of happiness and accomplishment? How about after turning in a big school project that you’ve worked hard on? That rush comes from a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a reward chemical released in the brain after exercising or achieving a goal—it is how God built the human brain to work. It helps motivate you to do fulfilling activities.
But dopamine isn’t only released after you complete a meaningful task. It is also released through more trivial means—like your use of certain social media sites and apps. When you share something, “favorite” something you find, or make a comment, you create expectations; you make a statement about yourself, and you expect others to respond. You anticipate some sort of validation for what you shared, favorited or commented about. You crave to know if others like what you like or think the same way you do. If that validation is met, either by seeing people favorite what you favorited or post a comment on a picture you posted, a small amount of dopamine is released.
It’s the same with e-mail and phone alerts. When your phone buzzes with a text message, e-mail or app notification, it triggers you to check out that message or notification. If it is something positive and rewarding, then you get a dopamine hit. The behavior of checking those alerts is immediately reinforced and rewarded. So now, the act of checking the alert builds anticipation for a reward and causes a dopamine release.
Before you know it, your brain has been programmed to look forward to those alerts. Then, when you receive an alert, it is hard to ignore it, even if you are driving a car or in the middle of your Bible study. In 2017, Facebook’s head of marketing said that the average millennial checks his or her phone 157 times a day!
Justin Rosenstein, the co-creator of Facebook’s “like” button, told Vice magazine in an interview, “The vast majority of push notifications are just distractions that pull us out of the moment. 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.”
Imagine once again that you have just completed a successful workout or homework assignment. Dopamine is released, and the experience feels even more rewarding. Next, you post a picture of the workout you did or tweet about your finished assignment. You receive a second dopamine hit as you anticipate the feedback you’ll receive from your post. Then, your phone buzzes with alerts—people like what you have done! You receive a third hit of dopamine.
In other words, it is a dopamine chain! The good feelings lead to more participation in the app, and before you know it, you are addicted to it.
This is similar to what goes on with gambling addiction. For instance, when you refresh your feed on a social network, it typically involves just opening the app or, if you are already in the app, a swipe of a finger. One tap or swipe, and two seconds later, something new comes up. Maybe it’s an interesting post, maybe it’s something uninteresting, or maybe it’s something you’ve seen before. It doesn’t matter what it is—it all feeds into the dopamine chain because if you don’t know whether you are going to “win” or not, you anticipate the outcome even more. Maybe this time I will get a real treat, you think.
Now, replace the swipe or tap with a lever, and you have a slot machine. The delay in the app loading is like the spinning graphics of the slot machine. They both use the natural reward system built in the brain to hook people.
Sean Parker summed it up in his interview: “[W]e need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments.”
The inventors of these sites knew exactly what they were doing. Parker told Axios, “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. [We] understood this, consciously, And we did it anyway” (emphasis added).
Not every device is made with you as the product in mind, but as the war for your attention heats up, more devices are being built with this approach. Take the new voice assistants coming out, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home. Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group, said a study into their patent applications showed “[I]t’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers.” These devices allow companies like Amazon and Google to record your preferences more easily than ever before, which allows them to target you with ads for goods that you actually want—tempting you to buy their products and increase their profits.
Entertainment platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have fewer opportunities to hook you with a dopamine chain, but they still find ways to exploit the workings of the human mind to keep viewers hooked. Joris Evers, director of Global Communications, says there are 33 million different versions of Netflix. Netflix can tap into the viewing habits of 125 million worldwide streaming customers to find out what hooks viewers into watching more episodes of shows.
Netflix tracks when you pause, rewind, fast forward and whether you complete an episode. Netflix tracks how you scroll, what you search, when you leave content, what time you watch, what day of the week you watch, and the dates you watch.
Then, they take all that information to present you with options that will most likely interest you. They even use that information when creating their own shows. And when they are deciding which movies to buy streaming licenses for, they take into account the popularity of the directors, the actors and the topics. Netflix knows how long and how often they need to show specific types of content, such as violence, to keep viewers hooked.
Even then, these media apps have tough competition from smartphones. So addicting are these feedback loops that in 2017, it was estimated that over 177.7 million American adults would use a second screen device while watching tv. It’s hard for Americans to stay focused—even on their entertainment!
These feedback loops may seem harmless, but former Facebook vice president of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, called it a “global problem.” In a speech he gave to Stanford Graduate School of Business students, he said, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” He said he feels “tremendous guilt” for his part in it.
It may seem too late for these former Facebook executives to speak out now, but their actions have spoken louder than their words for years. For instance, Palihapitiya does not let his own children use social media platforms. Steve Jobs did not allow the iPad in his home because he thought that it was too dangerous for his children.
You might possess more self-control than a child, but your mind is still susceptible to the feedback loops that these devices and apps create. Even adults are susceptible to the dopamine chain because their brains are programmed to respond in the same way that yours does. Thus, knowing how these devices and apps work will help you better evaluate how you use technology and whether you are actually gaining in productivity or whether you are locked in to feedback loops that distract you from interacting with the people in front of you and accomplishing important tasks.
Even if the only thing you lose is time, those lost minutes will add up. Maybe you are able to resist spending large amounts of time on these platforms, but even just glancing at your phone or notifications can reduce your ability to concentrate for up to the next 20 minutes, studies have shown.
The point is, most of the apps that you spend your time on are built purely to suck up your attention. The attention that you could use to build or learn something new, connect with your parents and siblings, or spend in reading books and studying for school is now being repackaged and sold to advertisers. You are giving the value of your attention and time to the executives of these companies, making them wealthy.
Your attention is valuable. Facebook is a master of capturing people’s attention, and right now, Facebook’s value sits at over $450 billion! Do you value your attention and time as much as these advertisers do?
The preciousness of time is a theme Pastor General Gerald Flurry writes about in How to Be an Overcomer: “Our lives are comprised of time—precious time. We don’t have much of it! Look at how quickly time is going by! The older I get, the more I realize how easy it is to waste time,” he writes in the chapter, “The Science of Spiritual Warfare.”
Learning the science behind how technology relates to us is important to enable us to live carefully and win in our spiritual warfare. After all, Satan is using that same science to distract us and swallow up our time.
As Paul wrote in Hebrews 12:1, “[L]et us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”
Satan lays many snares for us to weigh us down in our race, and today, he has more technology and devices to distract us with than ever before. If we are not careful, Satan will slow down our running to a mere crawl.
Ephesians 5:15-16 say, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
Examine the use of technology in your life. It does help you with many tasks, but cutting out that which is a mere distraction or limiting its use will help ensure that you do not let your precious time go to waste.