There are many reasons to be concerned about screen addiction. Maybe you have friends who can’t hold a conversation without reaching for their phones. Maybe you have neck pain from wasting too much time online. Maybe you have a gut feeling that we’re helpless against the barrage of endless notifications and addictive platforms in our daily lives.
These all ring true for me, at least. But I don’t think we’re helpless, and I don’t think “screen addiction” is exactly what we should be fighting. I believe that people building consumer-facing platforms can turn these screen-related problems 180 degrees by focusing on their content. When platforms are filled with valuable content for users, screen addiction will no longer be relevant.
I’ll elaborate — but first, I want to back up a bit.
Today, we have free, instant access to the most comprehensive encyclopedia of history. We have the ability to virtually travel to anywhere in the world. We can stay connected with people in our lives no matter where they go. Hell, we can even teleport groceries to our doors if we tap our phones in a certain way.
An important distinction to note is that screens aren’t not making our lives better — it’s that they’re making our lives worse. Worse enough so that, despite all the amazing innovations that we can access through screens, we’re still complaining about them.
Our kids start playing video games and can’t stop. Our teens are getting less sleep, more obese, and more lonely than ever. Our mental health is suffering due the the time we spend on social media. We can’t eat at a restaurant without instinctively checking our phones. But we can’t fight it, because in exchange for all the free content online, we’re paying in our attention.
What consumer-facing tech companies want from you is to use and love their product. Within products that are content-reliant, that profit the longer you stare at them (i.e. social media and sharing platforms), that means platform designers spend their days prototyping and testing every detail of a product, from the curviness of a “read more” button to the number of notifications you’ll receive, all in order to optimize your experience (i.e. for dopamine hits in your brain).
There are many seemingly benign features that are wickedly effective in keeping us hooked — think Netflix’s autoplay from episode to episode, Instagram’s bottomless feed, or even the variable “rewards” (likes, comments, etc.) we collect when we get a notification from Facebook. If you don’t think they’re working, look at the stats: in 2018, 40% of social media users reported that they would find it difficult to stop using social media, up from 28% of social media users just 4 years ago in 2014. It gets harder and harder to “just set your phone down” when every app on your phone has been carefully crafted into a different high-tech drug to try.
We, as consumers, would not win a war against technology.
The fact that we know the products we use are manipulating us isn’t helping the tech industry at all — it adds to all the scrutiny around Silicon Valley concerning privacy, security, and the impending sense of dystopian doom.
But for those of us in the tech industry, we would be lying if we said that we’ll stop building addictive products. In fact, we’ll be working on more and more attention-grabbing products as more people spend more time on their devices. But if users of some product X gradually start to feel that their behavior is being manipulated (or if they, say, read a Business Insider article about why X is making their life worse) this could push them over to quit. Remember #deleteFacebook? Even (or perhaps especially) the biggest companies aren’t immune to public backlash. This public distrust around tech has the biggest potential to weaken the industry.
That’s why I believe we need to go back to the heart of what we’re building. I believe that people building consumer-facing platforms (that means anyone from an engineer, designer, PM, to a data scientist, content strategist, executive) need to feel the responsibility of creating something that is worth hooking people on. And an extremely significant but oft-overlooked aspect is focusing specifically on the content on their platform.
Sorry Kylie Jenner, but I’m not going to gain much by spending my virtual time with you. Snapchat’s Discover isn’t helping — a few months ago, I clicked on a few selfie videos of celebrities doing boring everyday things, and now that’s all I see.
But Snapchat is clearly doing something right, if it’s American teens’ app of choice. But maybe if you’re a Snapchat user, you already understand the backlash over the redesign caused by the decrease of focus from your actual friends. I’m guessing that with increasing pressure to monetize and redefine their role as a “camera company” (whatever that means?), Snapchat really wants to show me more Kardashian videos.
Let’s be clear: the fact that Snapchat is trying to form more partnerships and introduce new opportunities for cash flow doesn’t directly bother me. I trust that they know what direction they want their business to head. What bothers me is that the content that they’re trying to get me to watch sucks.
Other examples: YouTube has a ton of great quality content, but I always see the same kinds of talk show segments, BuzzFeed videos, and “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN…” clickbait on the homepage. Facebook has been ridiculously useful for organizing events and reconnecting with old friends, but my newsfeed now 95% GIFs and meme videos that make my CPU fans go wild. Not that this content is inherently malicious or evil or even that bad, but in the longer term, I feel awful after wasting hours on them.
Snapchat’s users wouldn’t be so angry at the redesign if the stuff on Discover was as interesting or relevant as their friends’ Stories. People wouldn’t see YouTube and Facebook as enemies against their hard-earned free time if they saw more valuable content.
Content is the main distinction between products that are worth being hooked on, and products that are not worth being hooked on. A content problem can’t be solved like a bug fix. It relies on constant effort from the people building the platform to promote valuable content.
Before I define anything, I just want to acknowledge that this is purely my overarching idea of what makes content valuable. I think it’s extremely important for people working on different platforms to explicitly define their specific idea of “valuable content.”
Okay, back to it: In general, I believe that content (whether it’s in the form of a video, a scrollable feed, a game, an informational app, a collection of writing, a VR environment, or really anything else imaginable) is valuable if it benefits the user’s health and happiness in the long term. More specifically, some ways to accomplish this include: facilitating meaningful social interaction, supplying educational value, incentivizing healthier habits, or promoting productivity.
I’ll expand on these below.
Meaningful social interaction is anything that allows you to form closer relationships with others. Often, that means that the platform must bring you together with others, face to face, which provides more rewarding interpersonal communication. Today, we’re lucky to have various messaging channels to communicate with our circles, but we become less happy when we allow these channels to replace offline communication. But products that aren’t purely intended for facilitating in-person interactions can still encourage in-person interactions. Imagine if a social media site had a “Form a meetup” checkbox next to its “Post” button, so you can choose to post something that could lead to a fulfilling conversation in real life.
Important educational fundamentals along with top-tier instruction on specialized academic areas are readily available online. But even on more general social platforms there are a ton of opportunities to disseminate interesting information — I love watching TED talks on YouTube for example, and I’ve learned some really interesting facts even in the jungle that is reddit. From the bottom of my nerdy heart, I believe that integrating educational content on creative platforms has potential to make learning infinitely more fun. But it goes past that — when people read others’ insights, ideas and stories online, they broaden their own perspectives. And in a world with so much division and prejudice, educating each other should be an immediate concern.
The category of platforms that make you more healthy includes anything that improves your quality of life in the long term. On the health side, it can be anything relating to nutrition, sleep, exercise, or even emotional support or stress management. Especially as screens encourage many unhealthy habits — sitting excessively, neglecting sleep, neglecting ourselves — this is becoming increasingly important if we want to avoid racking up medical issues.
Products that help us be more productive allow us to spend more time doing what we care about. Something that eliminates the hassle of mindless everyday tasks makes you more productive. Something that helps you clarify and prioritize your goals makes you more productive. Something that allows you to communicate crucial information with others makes you more productive. Even pure entertainment can make you more productive by giving you a much-needed break, but all the autoplay/bottomless feed-esque tricks the keep you hooked for hours could counteract its benefits. In that case, the only case for supporting productivity is simply to reduce those willpower-draining features. There are a lot of interesting articles out there about why and how to do that.
Okay, these ideas sound nice and wholesome — but how can we turn them into reality?
The answer: Platform builders need to work on both the platform itself, and the platform’s content in order to create an environment where valuable content is widely available and accessible.
This is undeniably very different across different platforms. The following are general ideas to make platforms more conducive to content that is relevant and valuable to each user.
Giving users more options to customize their content is usually a good idea. That doesn’t mean you have to induce decision fatigue by giving users 30 different checkboxes to click when they first register — you can keep that sleek, user-friendly interface but also make easily accessible advanced options available for people to truly be in charge of what they see.
Basing content off of content you’ve already seen is not always reliable — if someone goes on a clickbait spree, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their primary interest is clickbait. Customization options are invaluable to anyone who wants to have any degree of control over the content they see.
When I see that stand of Smashmallows as I hungrily walk into Safeway, I’ll think: there’s no harm in getting some! But while getting a bag of marshmallows won’t necessarily encourage me to add even more marshmallows to my grocery basket, watching gaming videos will set me on a path to more gaming videos, especially through recommendations.
The tone of our online browsing is set from the very first thing we click on — that’s why default content is so important. Furthermore, the content that most people engage with is usually not the most valuable content. So that’s where curation by real humans comes in.
I would trust a human over any algorithm today to pick interesting, relevant content that can actively benefit me. Platforms should have content curators pick content synonymous with the mission of their platform, and then increase the rankings of that content on their default and recommended features. Finding good content is so hard and time-consuming for us as consumers to do, which is why platforms themselves should bear some of the burden.
If valuable content is hard to find, then it’s even harder to produce.
The content that people contribute most to public platforms isn’t necessarily the best content. On YouTube, if it’s easy to get more views with clickbait, why not make clickbait?
There needs to be a push to create more diverse content, and the platforms themselves are in the perfect position to do that. Right now, YouTube has awards for people with high subscriber counts and a partner program to monetize videos. They even sponsor VidCon, which had over 30,000 attendees in 2017. Platforms have so many opportunities to recognize content contributors, which means that they have many opportunities to recognize people making more diverse and valuable content, in addition to purely popular content.
Another example: Yelp has encouraged many people to leave high quality reviews and photos of local businesses by setting up an Elite program for contributors who are especially active. If Yelp can make people write long paragraphs about their local florist, other platforms can encourage the kind of content they want too.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is an infinite number of ideas that content-reliant platforms can use to improve their content over time.
A platform with “valuable content” is just a broad end goal. Individuals and companies must consciously define what exactly valuable content looks like for their own platform, and then implement ways to incentivize more of it.
To anyone who takes any part in a building a platform, whether it’s engineering, design, leadership, marketing or anything else, please start thinking about how to actively push for valuable content. And even if you don’t have a say in any platform, please spread the discussion so that those who do can make their products worthwhile to you as a user.
I haven’t yet really addressed the awkward question of: why should people working on a platform be responsible for all this? It’s hard to see any financial incentive for promoting “valuable content” when users will just as easily consume any other content.
If you’re concerned about what the future might look like, if you believe that there’s even the slightest chance the world could get worse from the new technologies we’re building — then you have your answer. Without pressure from the builders of the platform, platforms will continue to look the same, make the same mistakes, incur the collective anger of the public after it has interfered with their lives enough, rinse and repeat.
I truly believe that the most sustainable consumer technology is not composed from virality or novelty — they stick around because they are innovations that really make our lives better. Look around you — we still use blenders but we don’t use Juiceros. Similarly, making platforms conducive to valuable content is key to ensuring its success and longevity.
Let’s first look at some alarming facts about our relationship with screens.
A man in Taiwan died from exhaustion after playing video games for three days straight. Studies have shown that people addicted to the Internet lose matter in the “processing part” (grey matter) of their brain. We spend over 1.5 hours each day on social media and pay an average of $2300 per year for technology and communication devices.
Surprisingly, though, cars pose similar dangers to us.
Cars cause millions of accidents every year. Accidents on the road are the leading cause of death in Americans aged 10–19, and traffic pollution has actually been shown to slow brain growth in children. We spend around 50 minutes in cars every day and spend over $2000 on gas per year.
But no one would ever say that we’re addicted to cars.
This analogy might sound crazy, but we can’t deny that using cars comes with its risks and drawbacks. But we don’t strive to find solutions to “car addiction” because cars solve a significant problem in our lives: they make our commutes much more efficient and our lifestyles possible.
Screen addiction in its purest form — spending too much time on our devices — is not the biggest problem. It’s the habit of consumer-facing platforms to promote time-wasting content that’s the problem. But I believe that this problem can be tackled with everything I mentioned above, and also much, much more.
Maybe this is awfully optimistic of me, but when the content problem is better solved — when the platforms and products we use are indispensable in supporting and improving our daily lives — I hope that “screen addiction” will sound as ridiculous as “car addiction.”