Banner by Alexandra McDonough

Social Media Mind Games

by Jordan Myers

Most college students waste four to six hours per day. If you don’t believe me, or if you think you’re an exception to the rule, simply take a moment to reflect on your day. How much time have you devoted watching pointless YouTube videos, scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook feed or helplessly allowing Netflix to ‘auto-play’ the next episode of your favorite series? Perhaps more importantly, are you aware that hundreds of engineers are on the other side of every screen, designing platforms that glue your eyes to it, even when you’ve had enough?

Assume for moment that your time is worth $30 per hour – and it’s surely worth more considering compounding gains over time – this data predicts that you waste $180 per day, $1,260 per week and $65,520 per year. Now obviously some of that time “wasted” is not wasted at all; there are amazing Netflix series and informative videos on Facebook and YouTube. But still, there’s no denying much of that time has been truly squandered.

Ironically, most of us would admit that we don’t truly enjoy much of the time we spend on Twitter, Facebook or other popular social media platforms. We haphazardly scroll through different feeds throughout the day, and when we close the app, we feel a sense of dissatisfaction or unfulfillment. Yet, we’ll be right back on YouTube in the next half hour when we know we should be spending time with friends or working on homework instead. But why?

It turns out that we’re being cognitively manipulated in ways most of us never realize. The incentives for tech companies like Facebook or Netflix are aligned so that they profit maximally from increasing time spent on their site (or app). However, time spent on site is not necessarily time well spent for us, the users. Companies profit from ad revenue, click-through rates or raw time on site, which is not always in our best interest. And since time is our only non-renewable resource, tech giants are always in hyper-competition to capture a larger share of it.

Consider the following: Facebook makes less money when you only see content you find productive and worthwhile; instead, they make maximum profit by keeping you stuck in the newsfeed as long as tolerable. If Facebook can tweak their algorithm to produce maximum outrage, and it is this outrage that keeps you on their site, then Facebook is incentivized to do just that. The same holds true for any other emotion – like jealousy, intrigue or sexual arousal. This means that Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have no reason to defer to your preferences – instead, their only goal is to increase profit by increasing your time on their sites, and the easiest way to accomplish that is through cognitive hijacking.

For example, Facebook exploits our desire for peer approval by purposefully showing new pictures to select individuals over a period of multiple days. Facebook shows the picture to different friends over the course of several days, so that the ‘likes’ you receive trickle in over days instead of all at once, making you reopen the app to engage with each new ‘like’ or ‘comment.’

Facebook and Snapchat also exploit the human tendency for reciprocity. By utilizing birthday notifications (Facebook) and ‘Snap Streaks’ (Snapchat), tech companies are abusing your subconscious evolutionary desire to reciprocate for your peers. Humans have a natural inclination to repay favors to kin, and features like ‘Snap Streaks’ put us the mindset of having to repay a social debt by keeping the streak alive. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why average young adults check their phone 150 times per day; tech giants are engaged in the art of mental addiction. The idea that they are providing only services that their customers value is nothing but a facade.

Apps like Twitter also hijack your neurological response to chance and reward. When you get certain notifications, key information is only accessible once you open the platform. Then, once you’re viewing content, many social media platforms use a roulette-style interface that mimics casino gambling, which has been proven to be highly psychologically addictive. When you refresh a page or go to the notifications tab, there is a one to three second waiting period where a wheel or arrow will spin, creating the illusion of gambling for attention. This triggers a dopamine release when a notification appears after the waiting period, which trains your brain to enjoy “spinning the social media wheel.” Those familiar with psychological theory will recognize the Pavlovian nature to this arrangement; a systematic release of dopamine which coincides with an associative stimulus quite literally retrains your brain to obsess over that stimulus, which in this case is the twitter notification wheel.  

Now this is not to say all social media is monstrous – it’s certainly not. Technology has become essential and integral to community building, social planning, human interaction and even information discovery. But if we fail to realize there are hundreds of engineers on the other side of every screen manipulating our minds, we may find ourselves spending time in ways we don’t want.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, has since quit his job and formed a non-profit organization called Time Well Spent, in which he is actively promoting more ethical layouts for tech interfaces. Harris wishes to reconfigure the infrastructure of a phone’s operating system in its totality instead of focusing on any individual app. His projects involve directives such as reorienting a phone’s platform to focus on what the user indicates is time well spent. This could be accomplished by voluntarily limiting time spent on certain apps and limiting notifications for certain apps until certain times of the day – for instance during your lunch break or after dinner. Readers who wish to decrease their time spent on site – which is often synonymous with time wasted – should research his name and organization for more information.

While merely reading this article will not give you superhuman powers of resistance, simply knowing this information may heighten your awareness of the fact that every time you glance at your home screen, you are engaged in a war of persuasion, and you are almost certainly on the less equipped side. However, simply becoming more cognizant of the ways tech companies manipulate your mind may be enough to tip the scale towards the side of self-restraint and a more productive use of social media.