The Attention Economy: Why We're All Hooked to Our Screens and What We Can Do About It

By on 12-14-2020

Science-based tips on how to kick bad screen time habits and help you and your family take back control of tech

By Georgie Powell, Digital Wellbeing Expert and founder of Space and Sentient Digital.

Today, just about everyone feels like they should spend less time glued to their devices. Even children will admit they’re on their phone too much. But the screen-habits many of us have are more like addictions and can be hard to beat. Fortunately, we now know why. There are scientific reasons why we all find our screens so alluring and understanding these biological-based triggers and the companies who pull them, can be a very useful first step in taking back control of how we choose to use our tech. 

The Attention Economy

Before we jump into the science, it’s important to also understand a bit of economics. Over the past decade, we have all become part of what is called “The Attention Economy”, a new economy where the currency isn’t money it’s your attention - what Wired magazine calls “a radical theory of value”.  In this economy, the digital services which we use for social media, news, games, entertainment sites, email, messaging, and so on, are ‘free’.  We don’t have to pay money to use them, however, importantly, there is still a value exchange. 

The tech companies that provide these services use our engagement with their products to increase the value of their businesses. They do this by gathering our data which they then sell to advertisers who use it to customize ads to sell you things or to get you to interact on those same platforms that collect data on your habits again. And the cycle repeats itself, each time ‘learning’ more and more about your profile. More and more about you. 

These companies are financially incentivised to ensure that we spend more time and attention on their services, to keep us ‘hooked’. In short, our engagement is their currency. Our attention is their business. 

Now back to the science. It’s not an exaggeration to say that companies driven by the Attention Economy know us better than we know ourselves (or better than our partner does). They are more than masters of technology, they are masters of human psychology, needs and biology. They know they have to create products and services which appeal to our human instincts and needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychology framework used to explain what motivates us as humans. It explains that, after our basic needs are met (food, shelter, warmth, safety & security), we have psychological needs including belonging and love which we seek to fulfill. It is only when these needs are met, that we can move on to higher needs, like self-esteem, and self-actualisation (achieving our greatest potential). 

Figure 1:  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, source: simplepsychology.org

Many of the attention-based services which we use exist to nurture a sense of belonging, connectedness and community. Social media, email or messaging apps are great examples of this. We are able to quickly communicate and connect to others and to feel part of something bigger. They are meeting a core psychological need of belonging - and in that sense, many of these products can be hugely valuable to us as users.  

Other services provide us with information or entertainment which we are naturally hungry for. Humans have an instinct to be curious. We want to consume information, entertainment, and to understand. Connectivity at our fingertips plays into this natural desire, creating a need. 

Hook Model

Once in, these apps and services have been engineered to keep us coming back, and to stay longer. Behavioural design expert, Nir Eyal, blew the whistle on many of these products. His Hook Model explains how after initially being drawn to a product through some kind of trigger (a notification, for example), we engage further with the product and complete an action (e.g. scrolling a social feed or news homepage). But the outcome of our action is uncertain - a ‘variable reward’. We may find something positive or informative in the feed, we may find nothing new, or we may find yet more doom and gloom. According to Nir, “it is this exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, which sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward”.  

Once we have felt this chemical reaction, it is hard not to become hooked.  Habits form when we too become invested in a product by contributing further to the cycle, either by sharing (e.g. a like, a photo, a message, some news), or by committing more of our time and emotional energy.  This investment is likely to lead to future triggers (Has anyone liked my photo? Is there any similar news I should follow? Who else is following this?...), which keeps us coming back. And hence the hook cycle is reborn.  

Figure 2:  Nir Eyal’s Hook model 

The hook cycle is addictive because of the variable reward; the same mechanism used in gambling and slot machines.  Each time we pull the slot, the fruit spins. If we hit three apples on the slot machine, equivalent to a ‘like’ on Facebook or to receiving a text message we’ve been waiting for, then our brains release a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine makes us happy and we will actively repeat the process in search of more of it. We suffer when all the times when the positive reward is not there to meet us, but our search for the positive is enough to keep us hooked.  

As attention-based products gather more data on us, they become better at understanding what keeps us hooked, which adverts we will engage with, and what is most likely to hold our attention for longer. You may feel that this is beneficial - after all, it makes sense to receive relevant rather than random ads. But bear in mind that unless we are conscious of how these products are working, they may also be taking away some of our own control – especially in children. 

The addictive nature of these digital products, and our subsequent loss of control is why bad screen habits can be so very hard to crack. Control is the first ‘C’ of my 4C’s Digital Wellbeing Framework - it is the first step to a healthier digital life. So how can you beat these clever products and take back control? 

How to take back control 

  1. Be Aware of the technology.  
    Get used to challenging yourself. Ask yourself: did I choose to use this app right now, or did it choose to use me?  Be hyper aware of your privacy and data settings, so that you understand how your data is being collected, and what it is being used for. This will help you to consider your usage more critically.  Teach kids that these hook techniques exist. Most children have no idea what is going on ‘behind the screens’.
  2. Be conscious of yourself, your habits.
    Measure how much you are connected each day. A native app, parental control app or screen time monitoring tool like Qustodio can help you do that. Find phone-free times of day and areas of the house to experiment with how it feels when you are not connected. Write down those emotions.
  3. Define clear boundaries.
    Once you are aware of the technology and your habits, one of the best ways to break addiction and make positive habits a natural part of your daily life: Define okay and off-limit places for devices in your house or working environment. Set downtimes, times of day for no tech (e.g. before and during sleep). Define particular circumstances when you will make it a habit to keep digital devices away (e.g. no phones when eating). And, define rules for when with particular people (e.g. a pact with colleagues in meetings, or going phone-free around your kids).

Remember, there are now over 2.8 million apps in the Google play store and 2.2 million in the Apple store.  That is more than double the apps that existed 5 years ago. The global online advertising industry was worth $304bn in 2019, and is forecast to grow at around 21% per year over the next 5 years. The attention economy is big business and the products and services which we use are having to compete hard for our attention.  

By bringing awareness, control and consciousness back to our screen habits, we can unplug more often, unhook more easily, and find digital wellbeing as individuals, parents and families. 

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