i – digital devices are irresistible by design

Impacts on use: Easy to pick up. Hard to resist and to put down.

Whenever you pick up a smart phone or tablet, you are not just picking up a portal to the Digital World, you are also picking up a powerful magnet for your attention. Most devices that connect to the internet are intentionally designed to capture users’ attention, keep it for as long as possible and make moving it back to the Physical World difficult. Attention is a valuable commodity in the Digital World. It is the money maker. Consequently, the choices users make about how and where they direct their attention are constantly studied and manipulated by tech companies in order to catch and monetize more of our attention.  They accomplish this by using algorithms that exploit the brain’s attentional autopilot. Our brains’ survival mechanisms automatically direct our attention to novel and/or social information. The designers of the algorithms know this and exploit it. Truth, morality, fairness, etc. do not generally factor into the algorithms. Their simple goal is to instantly grab and direct our attention, before we have time to think, to anything that will generate more clicks and more time spent on site. Hence, if we want to take charge of our choices while online, we must be aware of both the nature of the algorithms and the nature and degree of skill that is required to resist them. 

Be curious! Conversation starters and mindfulness sparks

  • How does your device call your attention when you are not using it? What thoughts or feelings precede your decisions to pick it up? How much conscious awareness do you have about your decisions to pick up your device?
  • How does your device hold your attention when you are using it? How much conscious thought do you give to the decisions you make about what to click on next?
  • How do you make a conscious decision to put your device down? What factors make this easier or harder for you?

As mentioned above, our brains’ attentional system has autopilots that instinctively direct our attention to information that can help us survive. Novel and social information are two such naturally strong magnets for our attention. 

Novel information attracts our attention because it may indicate the presence of something desirable or potentially harmful (good to know if you want to survive!). App designers exploit this by using notifications, “pings”, new app features and pop-ups that activate this attentional autopilot. You don’t have to think about it. Something new appears and bam! your attention moves to it. 

Social information attracts our attention in a similar fashion. We are deeply social beings who have evolved to use social connections to survive. Evidence that we are “liked” and accepted by a group is of vital importance for both well-being and survival. Our brains automatically pay attention to such information. The power and influence of the “Like” button and social media feeds comes directly from this fact.

Be curious! Conversation starters and mindfulness sparks

  • Do you have notifications on your phone? If so, consider challenging yourself to turn them off for twenty-four hours. How does this affect your phone use and your feelings? See if your children will take the same challenge by telling them about the experiment you are doing. Ask them if they want to join you (invite, don’t command!).
  • Discuss the fact that novelty excites the brain with your family. Explore, compare and contrast examples from both Physical and Digital World experiences. 
  • What are some of the novel and/or social pieces of information that have recently captured your attention online? How were they presented? What features (such as color, pictures, positioning, etc.) contributed to grabbing your attention?
  • How do you feel when you see a “like” button associated with your own online content or that of your children?
  • How do the measurements/reviews that indicate the likes of a group influence your opinion of that material? How consciously do you form those opinions?
  • Ask your children about the “like” feature on some of their apps. Which ones do they find important? How do they feel when they see many or few likes? Remember – Stay curious! Listen. Wonder instead of worry. Try not to judge or lecture.

Another attentional autopilot that is exploited by the designers of the Digital World is part of our dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter. It is released when we anticipate a reward. We like dopamine in our brains and are naturally motivated to seek activities that lead to its release. App developers and other technology industries are keenly aware of the dopamine reward system and spend a lot of time, energy and money to understand how to access it so users spend more time with their products. Netflix is a great example. The software skillfully activates the brain’s anticipatory reward mechanisms by displaying the little countdown symbol that indicates a new episode is cued up and ready to go. When the brain gets this message, it produces some dopamine in anticipation of the pleasure of watching the new episode. Without any conscious decision on your part to watch the next episode – and sometimes in the face of a conscious decision to NOT watch the next episode – you are instantly excited about the prospect of watching it. If you don’t exercise any skills that put you back in charge of your decisions, you will just let the next Netflix episode play (even when it’s 3 a.m. and you are having trouble keeping your eyes fully open).

Be curious! Conversation starters and mindfulness sparks

  • Have you ever noticed how easy it is to keep watching something when it automatically cues up? How can you stay more aware of such features now that you know what they are designed to do? What can you do to build in a pause so you can make the decision to click/watch, rather than letting the algorithm decide for you?
  • Slot machines also capture people’s attention because of the dopamine release system. What features of your devices and apps are like a slot machine? 
  • Take some moments to observe your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the presence of cues that engage anticipation. How often do they override your intentions? When they don’t, what are you doing to take charge? How are you talking about and teaching this skill to your children?

We hope you’ll take the time to think about how the intuitive and irresistible design of devices impacts your own and your children’s device use. Let us know what comes from your curiosity and conversations! We’d love to hear from you. In the next post we’ll share our own thoughts about the implications of iintuitive and irresistible by design for parenting decisions about device use.