An estimated 25% of people are struggling with social media addiction and problematic smartphone use. For those aged 18-25 it's 40%.
That's more than 80 million people in the US alone. Given the scale and network effects of these technologies, digital addiction should be understood as one of the most consequential accessibility issues of our time.
Persuasive tech is conditioning these people into compulsive and unhealthy behaviors, causing them pain and dysfunction.
It’s rendering people unable to act in their best interest, undermining their ability to meet basic needs, maintain good health, improve themselves, and be effective at creating meaningful and successful lives.
There is a variety of causes for poor self-control and executive function, which in turn increases susceptibility to impulsive, compulsive, and addictive behaviors:
- neurodiversity and ADD
- willpower depletion
- chronic stress
- loneliness and isolation
- underlying mental health conditions, eg. anxiety and depression
- genetics, eg. addictive personality tendencies
- environmental factors, eg. precarious life circumstances
Our ability to delay gratification is one of the best predictors of overall life success.
An inability to delay gratification makes us more susceptible to impulsive, compulsive, and addictive behaviors, which means we're more likely to engage in doom-scrolling and binge-watching.
You could just avoid these technologies, right?
Well, sure, but there's a myriad of basic utilities inside these platforms that are essential to participating in society: Marketplaces, events, groups for coordinating homework, or messaging to stay connected to friends.
The problem is that these basic utilities are deeply enmeshed with the extremely sticky parts of the platforms that are purposefully designed to maximize engagement. That means any use of these basic utilities is at the top of a funnel designed to keep you hooked.
From the perspective of digital product design, this doesn't have to be black and white.
It is entirely feasible to disentangle messaging from the rest of a platform, as well as to let let people opt out of the most engaging sections of an app.
Read more: Attention Settings
"Ability to Access"
Accessibility is about enabling people to understand, use, and enjoy the technologies that connect us. If these very technologies seduce and condition us into harmful behaviors, this ability to access is fundamentally undermined. Reframing digital addiction as an accessibility issue is an exercise in empathy — it's not just about the physical ability to enter the platform, it's about the psychological and existential struggle to do so without losing control over our lives.
As with other accessibility related work, innovation in this area is likely to improve the user experience of everyone. Even if I might not be hijacked by Instagram's explore section, why would I want its presence to drain any of my willpower when I just want to find a friend's profile?