Is social media hacking your brain? How Facebook and Snapchat are purposely keeping us addicted

Is Snapchat really just a social slot machine?Carl Court/Getty

An ex-Google employee has claimed that the Alphabet-owned company and other tech giants, such as Facebook and Snapchat, are purposely designing gadgets and apps with psychological elements similar to that of casino slot machines.

According to former Google "Design Ethicist" Tristan Harris, many of the elite Silicon Valley companies are long-established gambling design techniques such as offering visual reward loops and encouraging 'winning streaks' to hook smartphone or tablet users into a constant cycle of checking and engaging with their devices and software.

This process, referred to among industry insiders as "brain hacking", was highlighted by Harris in an interview with CBSNews. "Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, [technology companies] are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people," he said.

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"They are programming people. There's always this narrative that technology's neutral. And it's up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true."

How 'Brain Hacking' works

Most of the techniques described by Harris and other researchers studying the concept of 'Brain Hacking' lead back to how an app or device can trigger habitual cycles. While many mobile games transparently utilise this kind of design – offering incremental rewards for logging-in each day – experts claim that social media apps operate in a much more sinister and silent fashion.

"What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward," explained Harris, equating a gambling on a slot machine to receiving notifications of 'likes' on Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms – this also applies to "cute emojis in text messages" and "new followers on Twitter".

Yet while this design technique has proved effective in many apps, the ones primarily targeted at teens sound more insidious when put under the microscope. Photo and video sharing platform Snapchat was highlighted as one such app in Harris' interview:

Harris also claims that this kind of programming is having a drastic impact on the attention spans of children and is "destroying our kids' ability to focus" in a 144-page "manifesto" he created that was widely circulated around his former employer. Despite reportedly reaching Alphabet CEO and Google co-founder Larry Page, Harris said that the search giant has done little to change its design ethos following his departure in 2014.

This is far from the first time concerns have been raised over the way in which technology taps into the addictive strands of human psychology. In February, for example, new research into 'phantom vibration syndrome' further revealed why it often feels like smartphone are buzzing in our pockets even when your device is elsewhere.

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