The role of technology companies in technology addiction

Posted on July 16, 2019

Aiswarya Baskaran
Aiswarya Baskaran
Analyst, Technology, Media & Telecommunications Research

As personal technology and social media platforms become ubiquitous in our personal and professional lives, we explore the role played by technology companies in technology addiction. The term ‘technology addiction’ is a catch-all phrase typically used to describe frequent and compulsive internet, smartphone, gaming and social media use.

Unlike substance addictions, technology addiction is often seen as a lesser evil limited to behavioral symptoms and void of physical ones.[1] However, research conducted in recent years suggests that excessive technology use negatively impacts mental health and development, particularly among children and adolescents.[2],[3],[4]

Despite increased interest in the topic, scientists disagree regarding the diagnosis of internet addiction and there is limited conclusive empirical research available.[5] Although, we acknowledge the benefits of technology and view user’s personal responsibility to be important, for the purposes of this article we focus on the role played by technology companies and their response to compulsive use of their products and services.

Is Technology addiction by design?

Traditionally, technology companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google measured product success by the number of users. A related and often under-reported metric, average number of minutes spent on a device or platform, is increasingly becoming crucial for companies whose business model depends on advertising. These technology companies have a vested interest in keeping users glued to their screen.[6]

Industry veterans, including former employees from Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Facebook, have publicly spoken out in recent years and argue that companies incentivize employees to design features that increase time spent by users on their products. Push notifications, auto play, streaks,[7] and infinite scroll are identified as specific features designed to increase time spent by individual users. It should be noted that much of the criticism surrounds social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. These platforms are accused of offering unpredictable yet rewarding stimuli that encourage habitual use and social affirmation through feedback features such as, the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

Technology companies respond with more technology

Technology companies have responded to consumer and shareholder criticism surrounding excessive technology use by offering control features and applications to monitor and limit use. For instance, Apple introduced Screen Time, a feature that monitors phone use and allows users to place restrictions. This feature was introduced in response to a 2017 shareholder letter to Apple from Jana Partners and the California Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) requesting the company create an expert committee to understand how technology affects children and teenagers, and to offer appropriate parental controls.

Similarly, Google offers Family Link and Samsung offers Thrive to provide more control to users. To its credit, Facebook says it is reviewing the literature on social media use and has stated that it is focusing on delivering social interactions as opposed to having users passively spend time on the platform.[8]

Although, these control features are a positive step, they are far from a panacea and place the onus primarily on users. Apple was recently criticized for banning third-party parental control apps from its app store[9] and Facebook continues to roll out the Messenger product catered to kids[10] making us question the commitment of these companies to curbing excessive screen time.

Best practices for the long-term

An average smartphone user checks their device 150 times per day and spends 50 minutes of their day on Facebook products.[11] Additionally, it is estimated that about 40% of children between the ages of 0-8 have a tablet.[12] With these metrics in mind, we anticipate consumer backlash and increasing government regulations on technology products, making it important for technology companies to consider these concerns in product design. Given the emerging nature of this issue, we encourage companies to engage with investors and multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Center for Humane Technology, to identify best practices. Additionally, companies can:

  • Conduct assessments to understand impact on users in relation to amount of time spent, product misuse, algorithmic bias and transparency. In particular, impact assessments should pay close attention to specific user segments, for instance, young children, teenagers and digital natives.[13]
  • Establish detailed design principles and a code of ethics for designers to adhere to based on findings from impact assessments.
  • Appoint an Ombudsperson or Independent Directors who have oversight over product design and user experience.

Investors can begin by encouraging companies to report on usage metrics and consider engaging with companies to understand their product development process and how related risks are assessed.

Sources:

[1] CNS Drugs

[2] Nature Communications

[3] Economics of Innovation and New Technology

[4] Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews

[5] Frontiers in Psychology

[6] Digital Minimalism

[7] Streaks are a feature within the social media application, Snapchat. Streaks are created when users share snaps (media) for several consecutive days.

[8] Facebook

[9] The Verge

[10] MIT Technology Review

[11] Vox; The New York Times

[12] NPR

[13] A person born or brought up in the digital age and is familiar with computers, video games and the internet from an early age.