Likes, views, follower counts, infinite scrolling, notifications. We now know that these aspects of certain smartphone apps are deliberately designed to draw us in – to compel us to engage for as long as possible. They are, in Silicon Valley parlance, a feature not a bug. And if these apps – as various scientific studies suggest – are driving adults to distraction, inducing compulsive use, and in some cases contributing to anxiety and depression, then what are they doing to teenagers?
"I don't like to say that technology is toxic because I don't think it is per se, but I do think that there are lots of very clever engineers in Silicon Valley that are deliberately preying on the way we're designed as humans – on our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses – in order to quite consciously make a lot of these technologies addictive," says Tanya Goodin, author and digital detox evangelist with a focus on children and screens, who was in Dublin last month to speak at about the merits of the digital detox at an Eversheds Sutherland event for the firm's employees.
“We’re almost like rats in a big uncontrolled experiment and we’re seeing the results of it, which is that we are finding it really difficult to disconnect. If one route doesn’t work with us, then AI and algorithms try another route until whatever platform it is gets exactly the right combination that has us clicking and back for more.”
The problem, says Goodin, is that most developers did not design these technologies for children and adolescents but they are, nevertheless, using these products. Whatever hope a fully grown adult has in resisting the compulsive elements of social media, the adolescent brain is at a disadvantage.
“The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in impulse control and emotional regulation, doesn’t develop fully until you’re 25. So we are essentially giving them this social approval or social validation tool on steroids,” claims Goodin.
“We can all remember how difficult those teen years are: how you’re trying to find your identity, wanting to be part of a certain group, the importance of peer approval. And I think social media plays into that.”
Goodin thinks that, of all these features, Snapchat streaks are the most insidious. During the course of her regular talks at schools around the UK she always asks for a show of hands for how long pupils have maintained a Snapchat streak (an unbroken chain of snaps back and forth to a friend). The longest was 950 days – almost three years. One teenager was so afraid of breaking his streaks that when he had to spend time in hospital he asked his dad to keep the snaps going.
“These are the kinds of games that are being played with their brain and I think it’s really shocking,” Goodin says. And this is happening at a critical time in brain development.
"Previously it was thought most of the development in the brain took place in the first three years of life. Now, adolescence is recognised as the second critical sensitive period for brain development," explains Dr Eithne Hunt, an occupational therapist at UCC with clinical, research and teaching expertise in the area of adolescent health. Hunt explains that the definition of adolescence has changed over the years and now refers to individuals aged between 10 and 24 years of age.
“The brain is highly ‘plastic’ during adolescence, meaning that it is powerfully shaped by whatever it is repeatedly exposed to. Therefore behaviours [positive, for example, a daily gratitude practice or negative, for example, excessive screen use] established in adolescence are more likely to endure.”
But the evidence that these apps are definitively bad for us is not as clear cut as we would like to think. Hunt say that whether or not there are inherent dangers in popular apps remains largely unknown due to an insufficient level of high-quality research to inform our understanding. Many studies are limited by factors including small sample sizes and self-reported effects. Subsequent studies using the same dataset can even contradict previous ones, finding opposite effects. And small correlations can be blown out of proportion by sensationalised media coverage.
“Longitudinal research that tracks large cohorts of young people with sensitive ‘real-time’ measures and robust analytical approaches is needed,” says Hunt.
One such study was published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In a sample of more than 355,000 adolescents a negative – but small – association was found between wellbeing and digital technology use. The conclusion? “Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.”
This might frustrate those who have a “gut instinct” that smartphones are bad for teenagers or it might give others an excuse to continue using the iPad as a babysitter but it is good news because it could mean that, on average, a typical adolescent isn’t engaging in problematic use of digital technology. And it does not brush under the carpet the fact that these products are being engineered to encourage habit-forming use, which will take its toll on the teenage brain.
“We should certainly be educating young people, parents and teachers on what we do know – how brains and behaviours develop during adolescence,” says Hunt.
She says that, in her experience, young people are genuinely fascinated by this science – and we need to educate and empower them to identify and establish healthy habits and routines in their daily lives including how they use smartphones and social media.
The amazing thing about the smartphone is that it meets our needs immediately
Although more definitive research is needed on the various effects that smartphones and apps have on our lives, several technologists involved in creating specific social media features are coming out to say that they have been deliberately deigned to “addict” users.
In a recent BBC Panorama documentary Aza Raskin, an ex-Mozilla and Jawbone employee and the technologist who designed infinite scrolling, said: "Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally, like, literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting."
“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling,” he said, adding that he felt guilty about having designed this feature.
This has been compared to the famous behavioural experiments carried out on lab rats in the 1930s by B F Skinner. When the rat pressed a lever a food pellet would arrive. The cue (lever) became associated with the reward (pellet). And so the rat was conditioned to expect a pellet and continued to press the lever whether food arrived or not.
The marshmallow test
Compulsive smartphone use is analogous to another famous experiment: the marshmallow test. Used as a measure of will power it tests children by leaving them alone in a room with a marshmallow for 15 minutes. The child is told if they can wait it out, they will be rewarded with a second. Some children devour the marshmallow immediately, some wait it out, others break at the last minute and a small contingent lick the marshmallow and replace it, hoping no one will notice.
I ask Dr John O'Connor, assistant professor in clinical psychology at Trinity College Dublin how applicable this analogy is. He says, jokingly: "Maybe we're all marshmallow eaters now."
“The amazing thing about the smartphone is that it meets our needs immediately. We can have a thought or an impulse and almost immediately have that met in some way. In that sense humans can develop an almost primal addiction to these kinds of technologies,” says O’Connor.
And the paradoxical thing about the smartphone is that it giveth and it taketh away. The human animal loves to be stimulated and now there is a device to keep us entertained 24/7 with status updates, replies, emails, notifications, a bottomless pit of content on YouTube and Netflix, the list goes on and on. No need to be lonely or bored ever again.
“[These technologies] fill in gaps in people’s lives. When I talk about hyperstimulation I’m talking about this device we hold in our hand and is so hard to put down because the simulation is so exciting for us,” explains O’Connor.
“From a therapeutic point of view you will see [the effect of hyperstimulation] with people who have had too much going on in their lives or too many things taking place in terms of trauma or otherwise; there is a pulling back into oneself and away from other people.”
“I think that’s one of the major implications of the smartphone: it has affected our relationships with others and has, in some situations, made people more remote and made intimacy more difficult.”
What works with older kids really well is to explain how the business model works and to explain how they're being played'
Knowing what we know now, is there an onus on technology companies to implement ethical and socially responsible design that will lead to a healthier relationship technology for future generations?
Yes, says Goodin, but until the business model changes, technology companies are not motivated to change: “The business model is all about keeping the user glued to their screen for as long as possible, and all of these platforms are competing with each other for our limited attention.”
“I think [the solution] will probably come down to regulation. I gave evidence last year to three separate committees in the House of Commons about exactly this issue. For a long time they have been left to regulate themselves and that just hasn’t happened. It’s going to have to come from fines and penalties until they are motivated to make those changes,’ says Goodin.
What angers Goodin is when technology companies try to shift the blame and responsibility to the user: “I get really cross because I think they are trying to change the agenda and point the finger at users, saying: you just need to exercise more self-control. And you can see why they’re doing that.
“I was asked to get involved in Google’s digital wellbeing campaign last year and I refused because the message was that the responsibility was with the consumer.”
Part of Goodin’s message is addressing the deliberately addictive features that are built into various technologies and telling people to stop beating themselves up over how weak-willed they feel.
However, if not all of the responsibility lies with the user, part of the solution does. How do adolescents equip themselves with the mental tools to navigate their digital lives?
“What works with older kids really well is to explain how the business model works and to explain how they’re being played. They don’t like it when they realise Silicon Valley is manipulating them to make money,” says Goodin.
She tells these young adults that Snapchat streaks are not about friendship but about getting users to stay on the app as long as possible in order to view ads and generate revenue. It’s a little like taking the red pill in the Matrix but for the purpose of empowering younger consumers.
Hunt says we also need to understand that not all screen-based activity is equal.
“In my view, young people and families need to carefully consider what is healthy or unhealthy for them. Parents should definitely work hard to maintain connections with the online worlds of their children, just as they are likely to do with their children’s offline worlds, and support their young people to identify and engage in more activities that help them feel positive and well,” she adds.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to the question: what is the net impact for a younger generation steeped in digital technology? We only know that whatever effect it is having on the lives of adults, it must be more intense for the developing, highly plastic adolescent brain. For future generations, digital wellbeing might not be a cause up there with climate change but perhaps we still need a Greta Thunberg who will march towards Silicon Valley.