Silicon Valley insiders say Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are using 'behavioural cocaine' to turn people into addicts

Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesThe BBC looked at how tech firms hook people on their platforms.
  • The BBC’s “Panorama” documentary has investigated how tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat get their users hooked.
  • The show spoke with Silicon Valley insiders who claim that social-media companies deliberately engineer their platforms to be addictive.
  • Facebook said it was working with third parties to find out whether a habit-forming interface could hurt people.

Silicon Valley insiders have told the BBC that tech firms, including Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, deliberately engineering their platforms to foster addictive behaviour.

Aza Raskin, the inventor of the infinite-scroll feature that allows you to endlessly scroll down websites, said: “It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface. And that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back.”

The former Jawbone and Mozilla executive said tech companies were testing people all the time to figure out the best way to get them addicted, for example by tinkering with the colour and shape of Facebook’s “like” button.

“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting,” he said.

Leah Pearlman, a coinventor of Facebook’s “like” button, told the BBC that she herself became addicted. “When I need validation – I go to check Facebook,” she said. Pearlman also said she never intended the “like” feature to be addictive.

The BBC also spoke with a former Facebook engineer named Sandy Parakilas, who left the company in 2012 and has been extremely critical of its approach to privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He said the social-media giant was fully aware it promoted addictive behaviours.

“There was definitely an awareness of the fact that the product was habit-forming and addictive,” he said. “You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers.”

It is not the first time a former Facebook executive has broken ranks on addiction. The company’s former president Sean Parker said last year that the social-media site was “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” He claimed that founders and creators like himself and Mark Zuckerberg understood this but “did it anyway.”

Sean ParkerTheo Wargo/Getty Images for Global CitizenSean Parker, the former president of Facebook.

Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships, told the BBC that the company was investigating whether an addiction-forming interface hurt people.

“We’re working with third-party folks that are looking at habit-forming behaviours – whether it’s on our platform or the internet writ large – and trying to understanding if there are elements that we do believe are bringing harm to people,” he said. “So that we can shore those up and we can invest in making sure those folks are safe over time.”

Last year, Facebook acknowledged that excessive use of social media could have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health.

A Facebook spokesman, however, told Business Insider:

“The allegations that have arisen during BBC Panorama’s production process are inaccurate. Facebook and Instagram were designed to bring people closer to their friends, family, and the things that they care about.”

“This could be connecting with loved ones that live far away, or joining a community of people that share your interests or support the causes that matter most to you. This purpose sits at the center of every design decision we make and at no stage does wanting something to be addictive factor into that process.”

The BBC’s “Panorama” documentary broadcasts in the UK on Wednesday night. It is also set to make allegations about Snapchat and Twitter, though the promotional material did not make clear the specifics.

Snap, the maker of Snapchat, told the BBC that it did not use visual tricks to increase engagement. Twitter declined to comment, and Business Insider has contacted Snap for comment.

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