The talking cigarette packet in your pocket: why tech companies must fix notifications now

Addictive design is getting kids and adults hooked on apps.

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Imagine if cigarette packets could talk. If they could sit on the side and pipe up — pun intended — to remind you that it’s been 2 hours since your last cigarette. Picture them with the irritating voice of Red Dwarf’s Talkie Toaster — an AI-powered appliance with an awful bread product obsession. No one would tolerate the pushy packet and its scripted interventions from the tobacco company, but we accept a more realistic type of conversational design every day — notifications. 

A new report from the 5Rights Foundation, a non-profit founded by the cross-bench peer Baroness Kidron with a focus on a children and digital rights, argues that games and apps designed to foster compulsive use are “a public health issue”. It was published just days before the World Health Organisation announced that it will recognise “gaming disorder” — addiction to online and offline gaming — as a discrete mental health condition. 

It’s not just charities and international bodies that are speaking up about the challenges posed by persuasive and malicious “dark pattern” design strategies. Sean Parker, Facebook’s first President, recently told Axios: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them was about ‘how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains... It’s a social validation feedback loop... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” 

Think about that deliberate tapping into humanity’s addictive nature when you look at things like Snapchat streaks — encouraging people not to break their run of conversation with a friend on the app — or YouTube’s auto-play function that can drag you into a seemingly endless spiral of related videos. These are not organic elements but rather carefully designed aspects of systems explicitly designed to increase time in app or on site.

The man who created the architecture that these services sit upon, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee summed it up well: “The system is failing... social networks are [constructed]. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.” 

The next logical question is how? The 5Rights Foundation’s Disrupted Childhood Report offers some useful and concrete suggestions, and while its focus is children, the proposals would benefit all of us. It argues that auto-play functions, notifications and all other kinds of “summonses” should be switched off by default. It also proposes that default “streak holidays” should be included in apps and that “timeout” and other ways of disengaging should be built into systems. 

Earlier this month, Apple took a step in that direction with the announcement of FOMO-fighting features for iOS devices during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote presentation. Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineer, Craig Federighi, admitted during the event that “some apps demand more of our attention than we might even realise.

They beg us to use our phone when we really should be occupying ourselves with something else. For some of us, it has become such a habit, we might not even reconcile how distracted we have become.

Apple’s moves follow a letter published by major shareholders in January that implored it to add more parental controls to iPhones and iPads. The changes include a new “Do Not Disturb during bedtime” feature to block notifications at night, a timer to set other periods when notifications should not be received, and the ability to limit usage of specific apps. Users will also receive a weekly report on how much and how often they’re using their devices. 

Earlier this year, Google announced a similar set of features for its forthcoming Android P update for phones and tablets. Its solutions include an app dashboard to monitor usage, an app timer, a new “do not disturb mode” and a “wind down” feature which begins by eliminating blue light from the display before moving to grayscale as bedtime approaches to encourage users to put their devices down in time to sleep. 

That both Apple and Google understand there is a desire to break the cycles of compulsive usage is welcome. They are the gods of their respective software universes and can make individual app creators bend to their will through operating system wide changes and enforcement through their app stores. But ultimately, all of these features can be circumvented by both the users and the app developers. 

Nir Eyal described the current concisely in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products: “The products and services we use habitually alter our everyday behaviour, just as their designers intended. Our actions have been engineered.” 

While gaming addiction is a controversial inclusion in the WHO’s list of mental health issues and there is always the risk of buying into a moral panic about new technology, that our brains can be rewired to expect new rewards is not really in doubt. 

Neuroscientist Wolfram Schultz won the Brain Prize — “the world’s most valuable prize for brain research” — last year for his research into how our brains recognise and process rewards. He says: “Every time we get the reward, our dopamine neutrons affect our behaviour. They are like little devils in our brain that drive us towards more rewards.” 

App designers understand how to harness those devils in ever more devious ways and there choices have massive consequences. As the former Google ethicist Tristram Harris argues, “never before in history have such a small number of designers had such a large influence on three billion people’s thoughts and choices.” 

The authors of the 5Rights Foundation report leave us with a provocative conclusion: “As long as the digital environment deploys persuasive strategies for primarily commercial purposes, it will fail to live up to its promise of progress.” They don’t argue against children (or adults) having access to these apps, games, tools and services. Instead, they’re calling for a shift in the philosophies that underpin interaction design. 

I see it as analogous to seat belts and drink driving. Though the law around these areas was changed, it was really social pressure that changed behaviours. The 5Rights Foundation’s ideas, especially its call for an age-appropriate design code, should be put into practice and, if necessary, law. But the best suggestion in its report is one directed at all of us. If we want children to be less enthralled by the nagging notifications, we need to put our phones down first. 

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist and CEO and partner at The Means Agency.