Are we becoming Pavlov’s dogs?

20 December 2018

Earlier this month, Forbes announced the top 10 grossing YouTubers and it may come as a surprise that in 1st place, with over 26 billion views since 2015 and earning £22m per year, is a 7 year old boy reviewing the latest toys. One can only assume that the majority of his viewers are other children - but what does that say about the amount of time children spend on platforms such as YouTube? And why?

Earlier in the year, Schillings co-authored The Disrupted Childhood Report with the 5Rights Foundation, the charity advocating for children’s rights online. The report looked at persuasive design strategies that “hook” children and young people on apps for services like social media, video on demand (VOD) and gaming.

We know that the nervous system responds to the promise of a reward by releasing the motivational chemical “dopamine” in the brain and these apps trigger that chemical response.

It’s well known that the 1890’s Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, discovered that dogs would not only salivate when food was put in front of them, but also when they heard the footsteps of the assistant bringing them the food. In the modern context, it’s worth considering how our behaviours echo Pavlov’s famous dogs.

When we see a numbered red alert on the screens of our phones, the dopamine starts rushing in anticipation of a reward. How many ‘likes’ have I got? Who has commented on my photograph? This kind of design feature is deliberate and plays into the dopamine loop. Much like a slot machine, the user pulls a lever and does not know what reward they will get. Because the reward is variable, they keep coming back.

In contrast with the number of ‘likes’ on a post, some rewards are less obvious. Have you ever sent a message on a social media app and instead of closing the app, waited intently because a speech bubble appeared indicating that the recipient was replying? Planned to turn off Netflix at the end of an episode but watched for another two hours because the next episode played automatically? Kept “refreshing” your newsfeed on Facebook in the hope of seeing new content?

On a darker note, it appears that our addiction to these apps also manifests in behaviour quirks such as app users regularly touching their pockets and constantly checking their smartphones to reactivate rewards. Some even experience phantom phone buzzing.

Not only are we potentially being subliminally encouraged to stay on apps for longer, but new social norms are also preventing downtime from apps and electronic devices. Last year The Guardian highlighted a University of Sheffield study that revealed that “children who spend more time on social media networks feel less happy in almost all aspects of their lives.” The inverse of a popularity contest, the idea of ‘FoMO’ (the fear of missing out) is described by Professor Andrew Przybylski (Director of Research at University of Oxford) as “a persuasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” Young people cannot bear to miss out and it has been reported that absence from an event or group activity can have effects on relationships and everyday lives. The theory also ties in with the view of a utopian social media world; we post an idealised version of our lives on social media, one that will attract more likes and comments, and which effectively makes FoMO more prevalent.

All of this holds true for adults, of course, however we are generally better able to distinguish between online activity and real life, and we feel the effects less than young people do. We may experience FoMO on occasion, but it is unlikely to affect our relationships and day-to-day lives to the same extent as children and adolescents.

This situation begs us to consider: do we have a duty to lead by example and help young people take time away from their devices? In 2018, Apple introduced ‘Screen time’ as part of a software update which tells users how much time they have spent on their device over a week and breaks it down by app. The function also allows you to set time limits on apps, giving yourself some downtime. In a world where we are fast becoming Pavlov’s dogs, try picking up your phone less often, turning off auto play, limiting the amount of notifications you receive, not reading that email over the dinner table. Could your New Year’s resolution be a digital detox?

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About the Author

Anisha Juj

Consultant, Intelligence

Anisha has a wealth of experience in leading investigations, building investigative strategies and providing threat assessments from her time in both Government and the financial sector.

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