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The Secret Way Tech Companies Make Sure You Remain Addicted To Your Phone

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In 2004, Facebook was fun. Come 2017, Facebook is an addiction. This timeline is valid for all social media platforms, maybe even for the one, you’re reading this on. They are designed to keep you addicted.

Look back at how you started using the internet. It started out with checking emails. It was an easy method, you didn’t have to decipher any weird handwritings and the email, unlike written communication, almost never got lost. When the internet came into your phone from your desktop, you checked it more often. Now, the relay of messages started happening in real time on apps such as Whatsapp and Slack. A study states that an average person now checks his phone about 2,617 times a day. Of course, this isn’t just office email. But the sheer frequency indicates that things are going out of hand.

In one of his experiments, a leading psychologist, B.F. Skinner trained a bunch of pigeons to tap on a plexiglass to earn their food. This research is credited with the genesis for how engineers in the 21st century could play with the human mind to set out the trap of the world wide web. What Skinner managed to do with pigeons, 21st-century coders have achieved in structuring the internet.

Skinner’s experiment was simple. The psychologist set up a plexiglass cage in which he kept a few pigeons. When these pigeons tapped on the glass, he set up an arrangement to ensure that the birds got a reward after a set period of time. The birds tapped the glass at different frequencies and found success at the set moment. When he then set erratic times for the dispensing of food, the birds went crazy. Reportedly, one pigeon pecked the plexiglass 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.

To put this in perspective, in a day, Skinner’s pigeons would have struck the glass 1,44,000 times to get food. An average millennial checks their phones at a frequency a lot similar to Skinner’s pigeons. What’s different here is that this action does not translate into an end product, that is necessary for human survival. Therefore, it’s evident, that basing the structures of the internet on Skinner’s model, was a fruitful decision indeed.

Psychologists warned us of internet addiction in 1996, three years after it was formally introduced. But is internet addiction, really the fault of those using it? Or is it simply a network constructed with the ultimate motive of entrapping and addicting its users?

In his book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**k”, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, Mark Manson brings up an important point talking about blame and responsibility. He says that while it is okay to blame someone for something, it then becomes the affected individual’s responsibility to move on. The concept is rather like the economic caveat emptor. You use something; you read something, it becomes your responsibility to deal with it in a proper way.

The Economics And Psychology Of Social Media Platforms

The primary motive of organisations on the internet is to generate revenue. And that is usually done through advertising. They create an ‘attention economy’. Now to meet their desired results, these organisations need to create a structure that makes its users return. In psychological speak, they try to create a compulsive tic to meet their needs.

This compulsive tic is generated rather easily. Most platforms on the internet, particularly social media, run on a pattern. This is because their future depends on their ability to cultivate habits of the users, and hook them onto their product. They employee people, whose primary aim is to break the user’s willpower. In particular, they use a strategy described in Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked”. As a consultant to companies in the Silicon Valley, Eyal turned his experience into a book, teaching thousands of engineers worldwide, how to create a craving in the minds of users.

This process of addiction has four simple steps – you need a trigger (something that makes you take notice or get started), an opportunity for an action that is not predictable, a reward and an investment. It must be noted here that there was one more integral part of this process that needs to be kept in mind. The investment must be gradually increased every time until the person is fully invested in the four-step process. This is when an individual gets hooked.

The easiest example of this process is Snapchat. When you open the app, the trigger awaits – a list of names who have posted snaps. Then, an opportunity for action presents itself, regarding the stories you can watch, but what a user may be able to see, is unpredictable, creating the basis for the tic. Once the stories load, comes the reward, a peek into the lives of someone else. Further, being able to reply, replay or react creates investment in the action.

Every time you open Snapchat, the same process repeats itself. Most readers would now agree, that the process has become so ingrained in our lives, that every time we pick up the phone, we reload Snapchat, looking for more stories. This is when you’re hooked. You know how apps like Instagram and Twitter take a few seconds to load when you switch them on? That’s no accident – the wait makes the reward far more appealing, leading to a rush.

Much has been said about how social media influences our emotions and the need to educate users about proper use to ward of addiction. However, we need to consider – Is it a fair fight between the users and developers? Is this not, addiction by design, a phenomenon many are under, but most do not understand?

If the there is indeed an industry that is so blatantly exploiting the tendencies of the human mind, creating platforms based on the same experiments that have gone on to help prove the effectiveness of drugs, then is it a system that is safe for approximately 7 billion people to be exposed to?

Only If We Understand The Structure, Can We Protect Ourselves Against It

How do we ‘not get addicted’ to a technology that runs our life now? Unlike drug or alcohol addicts, we cannot abstain from the internet. Life would be too tough. Fewer and fewer jobs allow you to not be looking at a screen.

What can be done is limiting the use of the internet. More importantly, as users, it is important for us to understand its structure –  to realise that it is a platform built to exploit our impulses. That perhaps can mitigate their harm.

Figuring out the exact moment of addiction is tough. What you can do, however, is try to curb your own addiction by ensuring that you limit your time on the internet. Recognise the appeal of meeting people in person, rather than following their lives online. Most importantly, teach your children the correct way to use and understand social media and the internet.

It’s understandable that tech companies would want to collaborate with marketers and make their platforms as addictive as they can. It’s their business, and they won’t want to not make profits. But as users, we need to demand a more ethical design practises the same way we demand more ethical environmental practices. In a monetary and competitive environment, sometimes change can only come from a bottom-up approach.

Steve Jobs himself has told many journalists tales of how he keeps his children away from the iPad – one of his most successful creations. Similarly, the editor in chief of Wired, a magazine that talks about technology and the internet too, keeps his children away from screens. If tech bigwigs can understand the dangers of the internet, why can’t we?

PS: Don’t know if you are addicted to your smartphone? Use this guide to find out!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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