Have you ever bought online? Probably, and regardless of the web where you have done it, you have found suggestions based on what you have seen or purchased. You’ve also likely received notifications with limited-time exclusive offers and a timer that inexorably ticks off how little time you have left to take advantage of them. It is not coincidence, but it is about common characteristics to the design of these websites and apps that companies use so that you buy again and again with them.
This is not limited to product purchases only. The videogames online, social networks, internet gambling, streaming television platforms and porn websites use similar strategies to get you hooked. A review of nearly 300 studies has made a compendium of the characteristics in the design of web pages and apps that offer these services and can promote problematic behaviors.
For example, one of the video game strategies online is to provide a mix of fixed ratios and variable boosters – so you know when you’re getting certain rewards but not others, which will keep you motivated to keep playing.
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Video games are also engaging through the possibility of character customization or avatar with which the player maintains an emotional connection and relates to their peers in virtual environments.
“Most of the time those items have no real impact on the game but allow you to project an image of yourself into the world,” he says. Jose Cesar Peralesprofessor at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Granada and one of the authors of the study, published in Nature Reviews Psychology.
“This is not something different than what it was, in our time, to have Converse shoes or Nikes: allowed you to project an image of yourself“, he comments. “You’re looking for acceptance, admiration. And that, in a person who does not have enough social skills to have a sufficiently varied behavioral repertoire, can end up becoming a problem.”
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Video game addiction is included in the latest update of the WHO International Classification of Diseases. In contrast, in the other bible of psychiatric pathology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, it was decided not to include it as the current evidence was considered inconclusive.
Of the types of services online studied, only betting has ample evidence of its addictive potential, although all the others have characteristics that could facilitate abusive use in vulnerable people.
Some of these – the most dangerous – are similar to the gambling environment. For example, the loot boxes or ‘loot boxes’ offered by some video games: you pay a small price (one or two euros, for example) for a virtual chest with items that can only be acquired in this way. The point is that the objects contained in the box are not known a priori.
“In Belgium this is considered a game of chance and here they are thinking of regulating them,” explains Perales. They are based on the unpredictability of the reinforcer, a classic mechanism of gambling, and in fact, there are studies that find associations between the acquisition of these prize boxes and participation in gambling.
The battle of the algorithm
Another dangerous feature, and perhaps not so characteristic of gambling online as of the rest of the services studied, is the personalization that the algorithm allows. “It’s going to slide you into an increasingly intensive use of this activity.” It is something very characteristic of the platforms of streaming television, shopping websites, social networks and even pornography.
Something similar occurs with virtual environments offered by video games and social networks, which work 24 hours a day regardless of how many times the user connects. It is what is known by the acronym FOMO, for ‘fear or missing out’ or fear of losing things, which causes users to end up connecting more times than they would like to find out what is happening.
The psychologist insists that these characteristics are only at risk in people with previous vulnerabilities, such as lack of social skills, lack of self-esteem, kids who have problems at school… “A person who has a properly balanced life, has other sources of reward and other social and alternative contacts is at a much lower risk of falling into abusive dynamics.”
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There are characteristics that are specific to a specific environment. For example, going back to video games, multiplayer games have some peculiarities that can attract particularly vulnerable users. In fact, tend to score high on indicators such as novelty seeking, depression, anxiety, and self-esteem compared to other gamers.
In gambling, apart from the classic addiction-inducing characteristics, the work published in Nature Reviews Psychology warns that the narratives currently used lead to social acceptance of the practice, and hyper-accessibility increases the risk of gambling-related harm.
Cybersexual activities (not only pornography but sexual chats, websites and apps for sexual appointments or video games with explicit content), although they are not especially problematic when it comes to promoting problematic behaviour, they are associated in a minority of users , to negative consequences such as compulsiveness or addiction. Recommendation algorithms, advanced search features, and personalized notifications can encourage the development of these behaviors.
Online purchases benefit from high accessibility, product availability and anonymity, as well as gambling features such as limited time offers. In social networks, characteristics such as the scroll infinitethe use of read confirmations, the hyper-famous ‘like’ or the use of popular hashtags that induce the user to stay longer in the application.
In the last environment studied, that of the platforms of streamingthe ‘autoplay’ function (automatic reproduction of contents), the accelerated display options or the possibility of omitting the ‘intros’ of the series facilitate the binge-watching or marathon / series binge.
Regulation against addiction
“The industry has a responsibility to make products that are safe, healthy and do not take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities“, affirms Perales, who emphasizes that the concept of addiction should not be trivialized. First, because, while games of chance are designed to be addictive, the rest of the services are not.
Second, because the biochemical effect on the brain of substances such as cocaine is “several orders of magnitude greater” than that of these online services. However, he does believe that elements such as loot boxes should have a specific regulation that avoids their addictive potential, as well as using the skins (the customizable features of a game’s avatar) as a bargaining chip in betting or avoiding so-called social casinos, gambling simulators that use a virtual currency that can lead to normalization of bets.
However, the psychologist warns that, in cases of problematic behavior, the solution is not to avoid the use of these services. “If we call everything addiction, you think the thing to do is detox, but these activities are not dangerous as peras gambling is.” Taking away video games from a person who takes refuge in them is not a good idea.
“I do not have a negative attitude towards social networks or video games, which does not mean that we do not have to take certain precautions,” he reflects. “And part of those risks are due to product design.”
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