In a 2018 CEFRIO study, 83% of adults in Quebec reported using at least one social network as part of their personal Internet usage. 45% logged in more than once a day. From all accounts, these statistics have only increased. Social media is everywhere, practically inseparable from our daily lives. Have we become addicted to social media? Is there a correlation between the mechanism of gambling addiction, mass culture and the way users behave on social media? Our research and development team is hugely interested in these questions and the discussions that stem from them. Let’s start by taking a quick trip back into the past.
In 1973, Richard Serra sent a dissenting message to television viewers to show them the role of mass media and pop culture as a tactic of control and social construction. He showed how mass media asserts itself on on mass culture through things called “entertainments” for the benefit of mass corporations and those in power. “You are the product of t.v.,” he declares. “You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer. He consumes you”.
Today, in the Internet age, his message holds just as true. Like the television viewer, the Internet user is the product that social networks, websites and online video games sell to advertisers. In and of itself, this reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This very old, very effective model allows users to get free content and services, and people are fine with using their data as currency in exchange. So what’s the problem?
People’s attention is a limited resource that different platforms try to monopolize. Two main strategies are generally used by media (social, as well as traditional) to capture users’ attention: produce quality content and earn audience loyalty by delivering an enriching experience, or opt for sensationalism, catchy headlines and mass consumption.
But, unlike traditional media like television, radio and newspapers of which we are passive consumers with limited interaction, the Internet is a channel where we are active, and interactions are continuous. This opens up a world of possibilities and experiences for users, advertisers and the media.
Approximately 6% of people are afflicted by some sort of Internet addiction, according to Cheng & Li. This figure, which adds up to 168,000,000 on a global scale, represents four times more people than the entire population of Canada. In 2018, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Both China and South Korea had already been classifying the problem as a disease and set up treatment programs to address the issue. Although it’s still not labeled as a disease in the United States, since 2013 the very influential American Psychiatric Association included “Internet gaming” in the DSM-5, in the section recommending conditions for further research, an important step for establishing diagnostics and treatments.
The prevalence of the phenomenon has led to research to understand and treat it. In terms of diagnostics, we now have tests like the Internet Addiction Test and the Computer Game Addiction Scale. There are even tests specifically looking at social media, like the one designed to measure addiction to Facebook, the Facebook Addiction Scale or the newer, more general Social Media Disorder Scale.
The mechanisms of addiction have been studied for decades. Researcher Natasha Schüll, in her book Addiction by Design, explains that the frequency of rewards and reinforcements is crucial for establishing addiction.
The casino and video lottery machine industry also studies player behaviour. While some players like to take big risks in the hopes of a big payout, others put their money on lots of small wins, a strategy called “dribble pay,” that tends not to pay off. Gaming addiction develops through one of these mechanisms, and is amplified if the player has the misfortune of getting lucky in their early experiences with gaming.
This technique is also applied to online games. For example, in Farmville, players are constantly receiving “gifts” that have no value outside the game, and often don’t even have value within the game. These items are purely cosmetic, like a pond, a nicer house or a Christmas tree. These random rewards become a major trigger for players to play more and more, in order to accumulate them.
Another mechanism exploited by the infamous game is the need to create space for it in your schedule and your social circle. Your schedule, because you need to invest time to prepare your fields, which you are then only able to harvest after a set period of time. If you don’t return to the game at the set time, you lose your investment. Your social circle, because you are encouraged to have as many neighbours as possible, who you help and who have to help you in order to earn bonuses, which are often essential for rapid advancement. Any app based on principles of reciprocity works by forcing users to commit to a group. This investment of time and social capital creates an escalating commitment, compelling the player to come back to the game again and again. The game begins to interfere with the player’s daily life, accentuated by the growing use of mobile phones.
One common industry practice is to reward players for their actions, but in a completely random way. Experts in animal behaviour long ago observed the effect of this combination of factors on rats. The experiment consisted of forcing rats to press a lever to get food. If the lever released food only sometimes, completely randomly, the rats would press the lever obsessively, like a gambler at a slot machine. The uncertainty of receiving a reward combined with the inability of the brain to detect a predictable pattern except by constantly repeating the same action, leads to the development of compulsive behaviour. So, if you need to constantly click on icons or activate a scroll bar to carry out a task that could have been totally automated, it’s not for nothing, and it’s not doing you any good.
“One of the most curious factors in these games is sensory feedback. Think of all the bells and whistles that you hear when a slot machine pays out. The sounds and lights have nothing to do with the actual reward of money, but we’ve found that a player will take greater risks in a game if the reward is accompanied by visual and auditory cues. We can even observe this in lab rats. The reward for a positive interaction might be food, but if you add sensory feedback, they show an increase in risk-taking to get the food,” explains Luke Clark, Phd, in a WealthSimple article.
Replace sensory feedback by emotional feedback, like we get from social media. What behaviour would result if gains were accompanied by an ego boost?
There are many possible methods for treating Internet addiction, but the most beneficial one, complete abstinence, isn’t realistic considering the omnipresence of the Internet in many jobs these days, according to a study that came out in 1999. Essentially, 92% of the North American population uses a mobile phone to access the Internet, and 53% of people occasionally use the Internet from home for work. In the case of video game addiction, the results are mixed, with only one third (33.5%) of patients who completed their treatment experiencing complete recovery.
In terms of social media addiction, research is in the early stages, and while it may be possible to adapt treatments for Internet addiction, it’s still too early to be sure. In spite of everything, the problem is being taken seriously, and is now included in psychology manuals.
In the face of growing public concern, major players in the industry have advanced measures to prevent the overuse of devices and applications. These measures include warmer screen tones and a grayscale mode to limit the blue light emitted by screens at night; notification breaks to prevent these productivity-limiting interruptions; and data on personal usage to make users aware of their level of consumption of a particular service or application. But are these solutions enough?
A University of Seoul study hinted at a certain deficiency in these measures.
In spite of these caveats, it’s important to keep in mind that things are not all bad.
All the above-mentioned mechanisms of addiction are, at their roots, necessary for our survival. The fact that they can be turned against us doesn’t mean they should necessarily be banished. A slot machine might try to lure us into playing again and again, but to do that it exploits the reward system of our brains, which is essential for learning. And even a repetitive game could have some benefit, by getting us into “the zone,” which can reduce everyday stress and stimulate learning, as Douglas Heaven, editor at New Scientist, explains. If we play a lot, it could be mostly because we need the break.
If a social network or game can leverage our social circle to compel us to keep coming back, it could mobilize this same social circle to encourage positive behaviour, such as the adoption of healthier eating habits and maintaining a more active lifestyle, or bring together a team to promote cooperation and sharing of ideas, as researcher Alex Pentland describes in his book, Social Physics.
No one wants to admit they are responsible for the problem. No one is trying to deliberately bamboozle players or Internet users by using mathematical models optimized to encourage the use of their products and services. Brands and media are not directly responsible for addiction, but the can’t deny their complicity on two fronts:
However, over the long term, this is doomed to come back to haunt them. No brand wants to be associated with a product considered harmful to people’s health. These same brands would therefore not want to be published on a platform whose ethics are in question. That’s why the GAFAs of the world redouble their efforts to protect their reputation and their image after every scandal. All eyes are on advertisers, who have a responsibility to protect their clients’ reputations.
So despite the apparent power of GAFA, a responsible advertising agency has both a reason to react and the mechanism to do so – protecting the interests of their clients. These clients, these brands, are making ethical, long term choices. They are therefore sensitive to alternatives that will help their long-term image rather than simply appealing to short-term performance. If an advertising platform projects a stronger social conscience, it become significantly more attractive, provided that it’s open to making the recommendation to advertisers.
In short, agencies, brands, the giants of web… all of them, without exception, need to question their processes, their promises and who knows, even their values. In an age where transparency is slowly starting to inject itself into conversations, we hope, as specialists but also as citizens, to see a communal consciousness emerge in the industry. And happily, we are on the right path.