How the power of design can affect your mental wellbeing

There were days where I used to go out and play, early morning, with a bunch of friends. The feeling I experienced after an intense game was priceless. I know it’s been quite a while since we experienced those, thanks to the invention of apps that keep us hooked.

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I got introduced to social media during my high school year where I created an account on Facebook and the concept of adding more friends made you popular amongst your classmates back then. Little did I know earlier that quality matters more than quantity and how social media can become detrimental to our mental well-being in years to come.

Fast forward 2 years, Apple introduced the concept of “Read” in their iMessage app and that’s when things started to take a turn for the worst. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps included many features including “Like”, “Comment” in addition to “Read” in their apps which may seem like very basic features at first but it turns out that it gives us the same dopamine hit similar to cocaine. These companies want you to stay on the platform as much as possible so that they can understand you on a deeper level and target ads accordingly.

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We live in a world wherein immediate response is appreciated and we think it brings people closer than a response which is received a few hours later. Ever left people on “Seen” on Whatsapp and people replying saying: “Oh you’re so busy”, “Oh you don’t care”? Yes, we all have been there. It’s that compulsive response that we shouldn’t get into, which social media platforms want us to do. People don’t care where you are, what kind of trouble you’re into, they just want an immediate response for your message.

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As humans, we just think too much in every situation. Especially when it comes to social media, we just feel punched in our faces when people see our messages and not reply. We tend to think about what we’ve done wrong and construct baseless narratives around that “Seen” notification. This is a perfect example of how negative emotions develop due to the compulsive behavior of texting on social media apps.

This is exactly what the designers & anthropologists in social media companies want, a habit-formation model that lets users hooked to the system so that they can be targeted for ads, develop negative emotions towards people and stay on the platform for hours together.

Welcome to the dark side, the hooked model

Let us talk about one of the most destructive apps and how it’s keeping the users hooked to the platform most of the time: Instagram

In a hooked model, there are 4 stages which can let you keep hooked to the system: TriggerActionRewardInvestment

1. Triggers ( External and Internal Triggers):

External Triggers: Push notification when someone likes, comments on your post. It could also be in the form of emails.

Internal Triggers: Instagram Stories, the indication beneath the “Heart Icon” to let you know that someone has liked/commented on your post, Instagram messages and previously, the “Following Tab”.

Companies keep sending you notifications even if it seems very irrelevant to you just to make sure you come back to the platform. A classic example of this would be the Instagram and Facebook App where they send notifications which are similar to:

“X has wish on Y’s birthday. Did you wish Y?”

“X has posted a posted a status update. Checked it out?”

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These are essentially the triggers that make you click. By falling into these traps, you essentially fall into an endless loop, which as a result, makes you feel miserable about yourself. Sadly, we can’t have a real conversation with people these days on trains, buses, flights since they’re almost always hooked to the screens.

2. Action:

What happens as a result of endless triggers buzzing your phone? Mindless usage of social media apps and feeling bad after countless hours of usage, every single day.

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You scroll more because you’re anticipating a certain kind of reward which is going to make you feel good or refreshed. Photos of someone might interest you, so you check out their profile for more such photos and it just keeps happening. It’s an endless loop down the rabbit hole which makes you feel terrible in the end. That is the power of social media.

More kinds of Actions include: Stalking people on Instagram, Sharing and Liking Posts, Checking if someone you like has liked your post.

3. Reward:

Did you know that getting a like produces the same dopamine rush just like a drug?

Yes, you heard it right. When someone likes/comments your Instagram post, it is a little bit like taking a drug. Your brain craves for more dopamine, a chemical that’s associated with pleasure.

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4. Investment:

People love the dopamine rush that they get so they invest more in the platform by posting more pics, adding comments to other’s posts, following and messaging people. By investing more in the platform, you get targeted for Ads by the company which people don’t realize.

They just love to portray the best version of themselves on these platforms since that’s how they want to be validated by their followers. People are less aware of what these platforms are doing to them, they just want the reward by falling prey to the triggers. This surely seems like the dark side.

Social media apps are here to stay and it doesn’t seem like they’re going away anytime soon. It’s always up to us to be mindful of our social media usage even if they come up with various dopamine-driven, habit-forming reward models.

Resources to stop mindless usage:

  1. Google/Apple Digital Wellbeing
  2. Headspace for Meditation
  3. Block websites using a Google Chrome Extension
  4. Forest to let you stay focussed
  5. Turn off notifications for social media apps
  6. Moment, Screen Time Control
  7. SelfControl for Mac
  8. Go out and talk in person, not via social media apps