man addicted to iPhone man addicted to iPhone Do tech businesses need a code of ethics to stop messing with their users? (Photo: Dragon Images / Shutterstock)

Tech’s too addictive, says man who made tech more addictive

Bestselling author Nir Eyal gave businesses a step-by-step guide to getting their users hooked, but he seems to be rethinking things.

The other day, I was drinking tea in a tiny Moroccan village with half a dozen other travelers, and we were all staring at our smartphones. We’d decided to sit together because we wanted to talk about our travels and enjoy each other’s company, but as usual, the allure of our phones was impossible to resist.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that social media is a tad addictive, you’re not alone. Lots of scientists would agree with you ... And so would tech employees. Companies like Facebook intentionally prey on people's psychological weaknesses, say former Facebook employees, seducing them into scrolling through endless newsfeeds and clicking on headlines that make them angry or scared.

Nir Eyal knows this. In fact, this Israeli author and behavioral designer wrote a book called "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” in 2014. In “Hooked,” he teaches companies to feed on people's addictive tendencies.

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” write Eyal and his coauthor, Ryan Hoover, in “Hooked.” The authors teach companies how to get their (appropriately named) users hooked on their products, suggesting things like planting triggers (think Facebook notifications) and rewards to make people compulsively keep opening their apps.

Now, Eyal seems to be having second thoughts. He recently wrote a blog post arguing that, perhaps, preying on people’s addictive tendencies may be … how should I put this … wrong.

"The tech industry needs a new ethical bar," Eyal writes on his website. “The tech industry needs to do better than the threat of jail time to decide to do the right thing.”

Nir Eyal Nir Eyal, author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products." (Photo: YouTube)

He argues that tech companies should create a code of ethics to stop exploiting people so much. He suggests companies like Facebook measure regret: ask users how much they regret clicking on this or scrolling through that. Companies shouldn't plant triggers to make a person do things she later regrets, like waste her afternoon checking her Facebook messages instead of telling a friend about that Moroccan villager who invited her in for tea.

“Our gadgets and apps are more persuasive than ever. Yet for the makers of these technologies, few guidelines exist on how to change user behavior ethically,” writes Eyal. “Without a standard, businesses tend to unthinkingly push the envelope in the never-ending quest for more engagement, more growth, and, ultimately, more profits.”

Irony aside, the guy has a point. Lots of professions have ethical codes to protect people from the dark side of money. Doctors, for instance, take an oath not to harm their patients. Journalists vow to tell the truth. Like doctors and journalists, tech employees affect people's lives in a big way. Maybe they need an oath too.

Some people in the tech community seem to agree with this message. Recently, a group of Google and Facebook employees teamed up to try and make their inventions less addictive. Israeli behavioral scientist Dan Ariely even came up with techniques to combat triggers like notifications.

Digital technology is having a huge effect on people’s lives. But it’s such a new industry that it's a bit of a gold rush; it hasn't really developed ethics. If people in tech really want to make the world better (a claim they make pretty obsessively) then they may have to draw some lines in the sand that have nothing to do with digging for profit.

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