“Online games and social networking sites use psychological principles to keep you hooked,” says Natasha Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Designers don’t intentionally build their sites to create dependency, but they use the same principles that keep people turning back just one more time to hit the button on the slot machine. “Games and social media sites are solitary, continuous, and rapid,” explains Schüll. “It’s just you and the machine. No one else is there to interrupt your experience. And you set the pace and go as fast as you wish.”
The sites rely on what Schüll calls a formula for “persistence of behavior through schedules of reinforcement”—in other words, users love their rewards. The unpredictability of what that reward will be and when they’ll receive it keeps them logged in. They repeatedly check Facebook for another post, another photograph, another invitation to download a related app. The behavior of eBay bidders is reinforced not only when they win an auction, but when they receive periodic messages that they’re still the high bidder.
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience indicate that online dependency is not so different from physical addiction. “MRI scans of patients playing a slot machine and those using cocaine look exactly the same,” says Schüll. “What happens in the brain is independent of the introduction of outside substances. The brain’s reward centers light up because the person’s behavior changes their internal chemistry.” Most addictions begin as a harmless satisfaction of needs and desires; playing a few hands of poker stimulates those pleasure centers in the brain, and stopping at the pub is an acceptable way to unwind after a long day at the office. So is competing with online friends to position sparkling gems in a grid. But humans are social creatures, and when we forego personal interaction in real time and space to spend hours tapping the keyboard in virtual worlds, we’re not unlike the lab rat repeatedly pressing the lever to release food pellets while his food dish sits untouched in another corner of the cage.
Therapists who treat gambling and other behavioral addictions have expanded their scope to include chronic gamers and those who just can’t tear themselves away from the smartphone and laptop. “Online activity is a problem when it impacts physical and mental health, family life, and finances,” says Schüll. “If your online activities are affecting other aspects of your life, it’s time to think about changing your behaviors.” —Sarah Jensen
Thanks to Puneet of Ludhiana, India, for this question.