B.F. Skinner was a leading 20th-century psychologist, who is credited with helping to understand the relationship between behaviour and the external environmental factors. In one of his experiments, Skinner trained a bunch of pigeons to tap on a plexiglass to earn their food. This research is credited with the genesis for how engineers in the 21st century could play with the human mind to set out the trap of the world wide web. What Skinner managed to do with pigeons, 21st-century coders have achieved in structuring the internet.

Skinner’s experiment was simple. The psychologist set up a plexiglass cage in which he kept a few pigeons. When these pigeons tapped on the glass, he set up an arrangement to ensure that the birds got a reward after a set period of time. The birds tapped the glass at different frequencies and found success at the set moment. When he then set erratic times for the dispensing of food, the birds went crazy. Reportedly, one pigeon pecked the plexiglass 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.

But how does this apply to how humans use the internet?

Look back at how you started using the internet. It started out with checking emails. It was an easy method, you didn’t have to decipher any weird handwritings and the email, unlike written communication, almost never got lost. When the internet came into your phone from your desktop, you checked it more often. Now, the relay of messages started happening in real time on apps such as Whatsapp and Slack. A study states that an average person now checks his phone about 2,617 times a day. Of course, this isn’t just office email. But the sheer frequency indicates that things are going out of hand.

To put this in perspective, in a day, Skinner’s pigeons would have struck the glass 1,44,000 times to get food. An average millennial checks their phones at a frequency a lot similar to Skinner’s pigeons. What’s different here is that this action does not translate into an end product, that is necessary for human survival. Therefore, it’s evident, that basing the structures of the internet on Skinner’s model, was a fruitful decision indeed.

Psychologists warned us of internet addiction in 1996, three years after it was formally introduced. But is internet addiction, really the fault of those using it? Or is it simply a network constructed with the ultimate motive of entrapping and addicting its users?

In his book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**k”, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, Mark Manson brings up an important point talking about blame and responsibility. He says that while it is okay to blame someone for something, it then becomes the affected individual’s responsibility to move on. The concept is rather like the economic caveat emptor. You use something; you read something, it becomes your responsibility to deal with it in a proper way.

The Economics And Psychology Of Social Media Platforms

The primary motive of organisations on the internet is to generate revenue. And that is usually done through advertising. They create an ‘attention economy’. Now to meet their desired results, these organisations need to create a structure that makes its users return. In psychological speak, they try to create a compulsive tic to meet their needs.

This compulsive tic is generated rather easily. Most platforms on the internet, particularly social media, run on a pattern. This is because their future depends on their ability to cultivate habits of the users, and hook them onto their product. They employee people, whose primary aim is to break the user’s willpower. In particular, they use a strategy described in Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked”. As a consultant to companies in the Silicon Valley, Eyal turned his experience into a book, teaching thousands of engineers worldwide, how to create a craving in the minds of users.

This process of addiction has four simple steps – you need a trigger (something that makes you take notice or get started), an opportunity for an action that is not predictable, a reward and an investment. It must be noted here that there was one more integral part of this process that needs to be kept in mind. The investment must be gradually increased every time until the person is fully invested in the four-step process. This is when an individual gets hooked.

The easiest example of this process is Snapchat. When you open the app, the trigger awaits – a list of names who have posted snaps. Then, an opportunity for action presents itself, regarding the stories you can watch, but what a user may be able to see, is unpredictable, creating the basis for the tic. Once the stories load, comes the reward, a peek into the lives of someone else. Further, being able to reply, replay or react creates investment in the action.

Every time you open Snapchat, the same process repeats itself. Most readers would now agree, that the process has become so ingrained in our lives, that every time we pick up the phone, we reload Snapchat, looking for more stories. This is when you’re hooked. You know how apps like Instagram and Twitter take a few seconds to load when you switch them on? That’s no accident – the wait makes the reward far more appealing, leading to a rush.

Much has been said about how social media influences our emotions and the need to educate users about proper use to ward of addiction. However, we need to consider – Is it a fair fight between the users and developers? Is this not, addiction by design, a phenomenon many are under, but most do not understand?

If the there is indeed an industry that is so blatantly exploiting the tendencies of the human mind, creating platforms based on the same experiments that have gone on to help prove the effectiveness of drugs, then is it a system that is safe for approximately 7 billion people to be exposed to?

Only If We Understand The Structure, Can We Protect Ourselves Against It

In 2004, Facebook was fun. Come 2017, Facebook is an addiction. This timeline is valid for all social media platforms, maybe even for the one, you’re reading this on. They are designed to keep you addicted.

So what are the solutions? How do we ‘not get addicted’ to a technology that runs our life now? Unlike drug or alcohol addicts, we cannot abstain from the internet. Life would be too tough. Fewer and fewer jobs allow you to not be looking at a screen.

What can be done is limiting the use of the internet. More importantly, as users, it is important for us to understand its structure –  to realise that it is a platform built to exploit our impulses. That perhaps can mitigate their harm.

Figuring out the exact moment of addiction is tough. What you can do, however, is try to curb your own addiction by ensuring that you limit your time on the internet. Recognise the appeal of meeting people in person, rather than following their lives online. Most importantly, teach your children the correct way to use and understand social media and the internet.

It’s understandable that tech companies would want to collaborate with marketers and make their platforms as addictive as they can. It’s their business, and they won’t want to not make profits. But as users, we need to demand a more ethical design practises the same way we demand more ethical environmental practices. In a monetary and competitive environment, sometimes change can only come from a bottom-up approach.

Steve Jobs himself has told many journalists tales of how he keeps his children away from the iPad – one of his most successful creations. Similarly, the editor in chief of Wired, a magazine that talks about technology and the internet too, keeps his children away from screens. If tech bigwigs can understand the dangers of the internet, why can’t we?


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