Data Protection investigates several companies for the addictive patterns of internet platforms: “They imply a risk for minors” | Technology

Many mobile platforms and applications are designed in such a way that they become addictive for users. The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) announced today that it is investigating several companies for this reason, after presenting a report in which it examines the mechanisms that make these online services irresistible and evaluates their social impact. Its conclusions are significant: “The incorporation of addictive patterns implies a risk for the rights and freedoms of all users.” These risks affect “their physical and mental integrity, but they can also cause discrimination, exclusion, manipulation, undermine individual autonomy, influence their thought process, their emotions, their behavior, limit their freedom of information and expression, generate self-censorship and affect autonomy and development.”

The document stresses that all of the above can be particularly serious “for children and younger users”. The director of the AEPD, Mar España, referred to the seriousness of the matter in these terms this morning during the presentation of the report: “In the same way that no one would give a bottle of wine to their eight or ten year old child, because that affects the neuronal development of the brain, the same considerations must be taken with the safe use of the Internet”.

The use of these techniques also has implications from a privacy perspective. “It affects proactive responsibility, the effective application of data protection obligations by design and by default, transparency, legality, loyalty, purpose limitation, data minimization, automated decisions or the processing of special categories of data,” the study states.

For all these reasons, the AEPD is going to start investigations into some companies that have overstepped their boundaries in this area, although Spain said that, for confidentiality reasons, it cannot give the names of the platforms being analysed by the organisation. The director also said that a response is being coordinated at a European level on this matter.

“The Internet industry is primarily responsible,” Spain said, “but governments must take action. Otherwise, by the time we get to grips with the problem, this generation of children will be the most emotionally damaged since the Second World War.”

The slot machine effect

Online service providers that do not charge users, the Agency says, are financed by selling online advertising services that allow them to target targeted advertising to interested parties. “Under this model, providers’ economic benefits depend, to a large extent, on the amount of time that the user is using their products,” the report notes. “For this reason, some Internet providers try to keep users on the platform, application or service for as long as possible, and influence or manipulate their behaviour by including additional operations to the processing of personal data based on deceptive and addictive design patterns,” it underlines.

The AEPD understands addictive patterns as “the characteristics, attributes or design practices that determine a particular way of using digital platforms, applications and services, intended to make users spend much more time using them or with a greater degree of commitment than expected, convenient or healthy for them”. The document warns of the implications that this way of functioning has on minors. “Its impact can be particularly serious on the right to physical and mental integrity of children and younger users, affecting their way of making decisions, of relating in society or their mental balance”, it highlights.

“All of this is proven and established. The industry is fully aware of this,” Spain stressed in reference to the revelations of Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who leaked hundreds of official documents to The Wall Street Journal which showed that the technology executives were aware that Facebook and Instagram algorithms were spreading the benefits of anorexia and even suicidal thoughts among teenagers, especially girls.

In the US, major social media platforms are facing a cascade of lawsuits over their harmful effects on younger users. The UN also highlights the need to protect rights of childhood in the digital sphere. In some US states, such as New York, social networks will be prohibited from showing minors content based on recommendation algorithms under certain circumstances.

There is also growing concern in the EU about deceptive and addictive design patterns in online services. In this regard, the document recalls that the European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2023 calling for the ban on addictive practices such as scrolling or auto-playing content, both of which encourage prolonged connection. Additional measures are currently being discussed in Brussels to regulate addictive design and protect users, especially the most vulnerable, from these patterns. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Regulation will also act in this area when addictive patterns are implemented using AI models.

Types of addictive patterns

The document classifies addictive patterns into three levels: high, medium and low. Among the high levels are the so-called forced action elements (those that offer the user something they want and ask them to do something in exchange for obtaining it), which include techniques specific to slot machines, such as scrolling infinite, the streaming infinite (when a song, video or chapter ends, another similar one starts) pull to refresh (tapping on the screen to refresh content, often combined with algorithmic recommendation patterns for personalized content) or timers. Other gamification techniques also fall into this category, such as periodic rewards, incentives for completing collections, guided competitions or play-by-date.

Another set of high-level addictive patterns are those included under the umbrella of social engineering. They are based on “offering the user something based on their cognitive biases or behavioural tendencies in order to manipulate them and lead them to make unintended, involuntary or even potentially harmful decisions for them”. These techniques create the sensation of limited availability to encourage hasty decisions (for example, when a social network offers exclusive content to a limited number of users) and generate illusions of popularity, support or consensus from the user community (thumbs up, likes, followers).

This feeling is supported by activity notifications, such as knowing who is online or who has a new post, by alert messages (for example, birthday announcements) that appeal to a false sense of urgency or by inducing feelings of guilt or shame among users, which is achieved with messages such as “Your friends have missed you” or by keeping messages on the social network only for a limited time. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is also duly exploited, either by repeatedly offering the most viral content or by constantly updating content, which causes the user to believe that when they are not connected they are missing updates with important content.

This set of techniques has its icing on the cake in personalization, which allows these addiction patterns to be configured “to find the perfect balance that makes the user stay connected for as long as possible with the highest possible degree of commitment without feeling bothered by these patterns.” For this purpose, so-called social connectors are used (being able to share online experiences with family or friends) and algorithmic recommendations.

The third major group of high-level addictive patterns is made up of so-called interface interference: manipulating the presentation of the application or website to encourage certain actions. This is achieved by altering the visual design, emphasizing certain elements and downplaying others, and manipulating users’ emotions, either with persuasive language (“Connect now!”, “Publish now”) or overwhelming the user with too much content and information.

Finally, addictive patterns rely on persistence techniques, which are designed to exploit the innate human drive to finish tasks. Typical examples are progress bars or microinterruptions (usually ads) that make the user jump from one website to another and then prompt him to get back on track later.

According to Spain, recent studies have detected a gender bias in addiction among minors. “Girls are more vulnerable to social networks and boys to websites with pornographic content and video games,” she said during the presentation of the report. In her opinion, taming the addictive effects of platforms is one of the main challenges we face in the digital age. “If these patterns already have an effect on those of us who already had a formed brain in 2008 (referring to the date of the iPhone’s appearance), imagine how it will affect the rest.”

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