Should we regulate apps like we do addictive drugs?

Should we regulate apps like we do addictive drugs?
By Blake Allen | Nov. 26, 2020

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You pull your phone out at midnight, there’s the familiar buzz of a notification… waking up and loading your app you see that someone tagged a friend at a party you weren’t invited to. You get a sinking feeling… maybe they forgot? You press on, reading, scrolling and liking. Desperate for something that you can’t quite find, you eventually give up. That’s when you notice it’s 3am. Shocked at how much precious sleep you just wasted you wonder how did it get to this?

While the above story is fictionalized, it may not be for many people. As our phones and technology become more sophisticated, the apps we use are becoming more addictive… and this is by design [1]. Addictive technology is defined as software that attempts to hijack normal user behavior by subtle manipulation via hacking our innate reward systems. While trying to create a product that makes consumers use it over and over again is nothing new, for example original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it’s recipe [6]. As our societies progressed, many highly addictive substances were outlawed and controlled for our safety. Is it time for technology to receive the same process?

Technology addiction is estimated to have a rate between 1.5 and 8.2% of individuals. [2] In a country like the US this could correspond to roughly 3 to ~ 20 million individuals. Despite this shockingly high amount of affected individuals, there has been no formal governmental response to the issue of internet addiction. In fact there is a debate as to whether or not the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM) should even seek to define internet addiction.The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recently released a new definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder, officially proposing for the first time that addiction is not limited to substance use. [3]

How to classify technological addiction?
What defines someone who is highly engaged between an addicted individual? Internet addiction can be summarized as the inability to control the amount of time spent interfacing with digital technology, withdrawal symptoms when not engaged, a diminishing social life and adverse work or academic consequences. [1] This may not describe you, but how many people who define themselves as ‘influencers’ could this define? In fact, phone addiction is becoming so prevalent a new word was defined “phubbing” which stands for phone snubbing – or the act when someone ignores another to look at their phone. [7]

How technology gets us hooked:
How did addictive technology even get created in the first place? Addictive apps such as instagram employ what is known as the hooked model, aptly described by Nir Eyal in his booked titled “hooked: how to build habit forming products. [4] In it Eyal describes a four step process of a trigger, which causes an action, a variable reward, and an investment by the user.
The trigger, often a push notification, interrupts our daily life and sends us down a distracting rabbit hole that may consume precious hours of our daily life. It could be argued that social media is actually manipulating us to take action. This manipulation is being codified, studied and amplified through the use of machine learning which can scale this in an unprecedented way. The end result is that each year our technology learns exactly what we like and how to press our buttons in order to increase engagement.

1. Trigger – External or internal cues that prompt certain behavior
2. Action – Use of the product, based on ease of use and motivation
3. Variable Reward – The reason for product use, which keeps the user engaged
4. Investment – A useful input from the user that commits him to go through the cycle again
Source: “Hooked” by Nir Eyal [4]

Who is at most risk?
While most individuals are likely to have a handle on their technology use, which users are most likely to fall victim to addictive technology? In a study done with rats, it was shown that rats preferred social interaction to highly addictive substances such as heroin and meth. [5] This is actually quite surprising and leads to some interesting conclusions. The reward for social engagement is actually more motivating than extremely addictive substances. When applying this to humans, one could argue that individuals who are socially isolated are at a higher risk for all forms of addictions including internet addiction.

Ethical concerns:
If a user is psychologically dependent on a technology, are they in fact being manipulated by that technology? I argue that addictive technology is manipulation, as it is hijacking internal reward systems in order to create a habitual activity which benefits a private company (ie: facebook, twitter, netflix, etc.). These companies have a perverse incentive to make the most addictive technologies as it directly corresponds to a larger bottom line. The more addictive their technology, the more successful they are. With a complete lack of regulation there is no incentive to quell this technology, in fact, if technologies don’t employ addictive technology they may be at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

Inherent in addictive technology is a lack of informed consent. On the surface each social media seems to provide a simple service, connecting with friends. What is often lurking underneath the surface are highly sophisticated machine learning agents which are learning exactly which buttons to press in order to get you to engage with their service. This isn’t something that the average user is informed about, nor are they aware that this is going behind the scenes. If the user were prompted with a warning label similar to say the ones found on cigarettes, they may have a better understanding of the potential harms of using such a service.

In addition the algorithms which are driving user interaction could be problematic as they could be causing a net negative experience for an individual. For instance, perhaps an individual feels like they aren’t beautiful enough, the applications may be feeding this insecurity because it is a primary driver for user behavior. The user has more activity, but as time goes on has an increasing negative impact on that user’s mental health as their insecurities are constantly being reinforced. This becomes a runaway process which could lead to disastrous consequences if left unchecked.

Mitigation / Management:
Addictive technology is a fairly new field but it leverages the years of psychological research that has been done to classify and codify what actions leverage user behavior. One could codify these addictive elements and either put safeguards in place or outright outlaw them in order to protect consumers. Additional outreach could be made to individuals who use technology above a certain threshold which seeks to engage them and promote social interactions, which could lessen the desire for addictive technology.

What is important is that we as a society understand the root causes of addiction and treat this as a mental health issue. If safeguards can be made, then it’s possible we can have a meaningful and safe interaction with our applications that doesn’t lead us down the rabbit hole of addiction. Furthermore we should penalize any company employing these addictive techniques without regulation. There is far too much at stake for our mental health if these companies are left unchecked.

Question to the reader, do you feel like you’re addicted to an app / apps? If so, which ones and why? comment below!

[1] Hilarie Cash et al. Internet Addiction: A brief summary of Research and Practice. November, 2012. Current Psychiatry Review.

[2] Weinstein A, Lejoyeux M. Internet addiction or excessive Internet use. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2010 Aug;36(5 ):277–83.

[3] American Society of Addiction Medicine. Public Policy Statement: Definition of Addiction. 2011 [cited 2011 August 21]; http: // ADDICTION_LONG_4-11.pdf. Public Policy Statement: Definition of Addiction. 2011 [cited 2011 Augus.

[4] Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal. Penguin Random House. December 26, 2013

[5] Venniro, M., Zhang, M., Caprioli, D., et al. Volitional social interaction prevents drug addiction in rat models. Nature Neuroscience. 21(11):1520-1529, 2018.

[6] Did Coca Cola have cocaine in the original recipe?

[7] Phubbing, a definition.