A show produced by BBC called “Panorama – Smartphones: The Dark Side” aims to show how social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are deliberately engineering their platforms to foster addictive behavior. The documentary uses information from social media company insiders to detail some of the ways social media companies design their services to keep people coming back again and again. The program will be aired on both BBC One and BBC World News.
The show explores the uses of color, sounds, and unexpected rewards on social media to drive compulsive behavior. For example, an extremely addicting aspect of social media for users is “Likes”, which is usually displayed in the form of the thumbs-up sign, retweets, or hearts. Previous research has found that Likes keep people looking at their phones for longer than necessary and appear to feed on their insecurities and need for validation. And that is just one of several features social media platforms use to get users hooked.
The insiders say that the companies know exactly what they are doing, despite their claims to the contrary. Many designers were driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employed them. Former Facebook engineer Sandy Parakilas, who left the company in 2012, said in an interview, “You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers.”
One example of this is the infinite-scroll feature for websites. The feature makes it possible to swipe down through content endlessly without having to click on anything. Users can find themselves scrolling mindlessly for an extended amount of time, all the while being fed advertising that the social media company is being paid to display.
Some of the inventors have said they never intended the features they created to be addictive. Aza Raskin, the creator of the infinite scroll in 2006, says he feels guilty about the impact of his innovation. Last year, Facebook acknowledged that excessive use of social media could have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health. Studies indicate there are links between overusing social media and depression, loneliness, and other mental problems.
This doesn’t mean that social media companies are ready to admit that they are deliberately peddling a product that is designed to be addicted. A Facebook spokesman said in a statement, “Facebook and Instagram were designed to bring people closer to their friends, family, and the things that they care about. This could be connecting with loved ones that live far away, or joining a community of people that share your interests or support the causes that matter most to you. This purpose sits at the center of every design decision we make and at no stage does wanting something to be addictive factor into that process.”