Heads I win, tails you lose:
how tech companies are stealing our time

Joanna Michaels, Beyond Social Buzz
Watch the message dots, pull to refresh, bottomless news, look for likes, autoplay, unskippable ads…I wonder if we’re online or in a Vegas casino.

Social media platforms and tech apps use the psychological lures that keep ranks of gamblers mindlessly pumping coins into the slots, pulling the levers, chasing a win. Now, I’m not saying Facebook, news outlets and the rest want to turn us all into addicts, but they definitely want us to spend more time with their products, afterall, our time equals their profit.

The time we spend on digital devices is growing. According to reports by Ofcom, an average adult in the UK spent 3hrs and 11mins online in 2018. Then in April 2020 (first lockdown) this time had gone up to just over 4hrs. Just to clarify, this is time spent online outside of work, so on leisure activities such as browsing news, social media, online shopping, etc.

While I don’t believe that there is ‘good or bad tech’, I believe that our intentions can make a difference.

Being aware of technological traps that make us engage for longer than intended is crucial if we want to set healthy boundaries for our use of social media and online platforms in general.

The traps catch us unawares – it all happens outside of our conscious attention – so it’s good to be aware of those casino psychology tricks. 

So, here are some things to watch out for:


Social media likes are known to be directly linked to our need for social validation and getting attention from others. 

Interestingly, in the case of Facebook, ‘the like button’ was a late arrival. Facebook launched in 2004 and the Like button was only introduced in 2009.  

Initially, Facebook, a student directory, was about sharing your interest, connecting with others and seeing what they are up to. The ‘like button’ switched this to a constant search for social approval. 

‘Let me just go back and check how many likes this got’. Kerching.
Social approval can be addictive.

Bottomless scroll

Bottomless scroll, in other words, the never-ending stream of news.

If you’re aged about 50 or over, consuming news used to be: get a newspaper, get a cup of tea or coffee, sit down, read the newspaper – maybe from the back if you like your sport first. Then at some point you would stop, because there was no news left to read or your break was over. You’d put it down and do something else. You’d get the cue to stop. (And the newspaper would be the same if you went back to it).

Today, we consume news with no cues to stop. The news never stops. Flooding us with a stream of information and misinformation and leaving us exhausted.

Auto play videos and snapstreaks

So you log into a social media platform and before you realise your eyes get attracted to the motion and you are watching a video you have never asked for. What’s interesting, in most cases, another video loads up automatically after the end of the first one, without any prompt from your side. You have been caught off guard and you’re engaged. More coins in the slot machine.

Unskippable adverts

 on Youtube have an important role for advertisers, This is because of the so called ‘mere-exposure effect’. Even adverts that we consciously dismiss are remembered by our subconscious- this makes us more likely to buy that product later on because we have been exposed to it before and feel more familiar with it. 

This feature can be especially problematic for those suffering from addictions, and hence why Youtube is rolling out tools that will let users hide gambling and alcohol ads if they don’t want to view them.

Messenger bubbles

…or as they are really called “typing awareness indicators”, that are commonly present in our digital communications via messaging apps. Positives? To let us know that the ‘person’ ( or is it a bot?) on the help chat is still there. But those bubbles push our vulnerabilities when it comes to response time; they indicate the emotional availability of that other person on the other end of the line. What will these moving dots deliver? Approval or rejection?

Think how they’re used as a tension builder in TV dramas. (Line of Duty fan? Remember how the OCG sweated as ‘H’s’ messages appeared, or didn’t, on the laptop).

Pull to refresh 

New posts, upward arrow. It’s another trick that makes us engage for longer by creating a psychological dependency. The technique used here has been borrowed from slot machines in casinos. Scrolling your finger across the screen is like pulling a lever, you receive a whole new load of updates as a ‘reward”. What’s so compulsive about that reward is variable rewards. You never know what comes up when you ‘pull the leaver’, and so you keep coming back for more.

It’s up to us

What shall we demand from tech companies and designers going forward? More apps and tools that serve a clear function without tying us into actions we never intended to take? More transparency in how these tools work and their potential effects so that we can make better choices?

For now, the responsibility for resisting these technological traps have been left with us, the users.

What traps lure you in online? What tactics have devised got to avoid them? I’d love to know!

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