Why Facebook Notifications Are So Good at Messing with Your Head

Here's why you can't put the phone away.

Linda Tran/Inverse

It’s been six years, but William North can finally say he’s broken the Facebook cycle. The 28-year-old now lives by a strict regime: His iPhone is always in “Do Not Disturb” mode, he only checks his newsfeed three times a week, and he ignores it while out with friends. “If I use it a lot, I find myself becoming a slave to it,” he says.

North has a story that will be familiar to many: Tics and habits weaved their way into his life. Some time after he bought the iPhone 4, back in 2010, he started compulsively checking his app notifications. When he realized what was going on, he felt compelled to kick the addiction-like behavior.

These habit-forming processes are central to the design of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. There are probably even folks who compulsively check the social feeds for LinkedIn or payment app Venmo. Those endless scrolls are the first things you see in the morning, and one of the last before you go to bed.

“People begin to believe that they’re powerless, that the technology is somehow the demon that keeps them doing things they don’t want to do,” explains Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

If it’s not apparent from the title of his book, Eyal doesn’t quite see the problem with notifications that North does. “Really, if it wasn’t for Facebook, good old procrastination takes hold, and it would be watching television or listening to a podcast.”

While it sounds like North is “addicted” to Facebook, it’s important to note that addiction has a strict medical definition. It’s an activity that has a detrimental effect on the user — harming their health, their relationships, or their employment. Some people are addicted to Facebook — and there are clinics to help! — but the difference between addiction and compulsion is probably the reason you’ve already checked social media by the time you got to this point in the story.

There are four steps that products use to develop habits: The first is to identify an itch, i.e. something people are going to want. In Facebook’s case, it’s social interaction. It finds an easy trigger: notifications. They are simple to access and quick to build into everyday life.

Once these two are established, the service needs to build an air of mystery that entices you to keep scrolling. Maybe there’s another photo from a friend, or maybe there’s a funny article, if I scroll just a little bit more. The last step is investment. The more you use it, the better it becomes.

This habit-forming process extends beyond Facebook, and Eyal argues it can be used for good. Duolingo, for instance, works in a similar way, encouraging people to complete short language learning tasks. But Facebook’s habits are slightly different: Your newsfeed has a way of tapping into that voice in the back of your head:

What if your friends are having fun without you?

“Facebook keeps us coming back because we feel invested in the platform — our friends are there, we have pictures there, updates and half of our life is there,” Patrycja Slawuta tells Inverse. Slawuta’s the founder of Self Hackathon, a startup that aims to identify and alter habits in our routines to change our character traits.

“Somebody commented on something we posted. Somebody liked something. Somebody pinged us. It’s psychological triggers staggered on top of psychological triggers,” Slawuta said, citing Matthew Lieberman’s research into the brain’s desire for social connections. “[Facebook] fulfills the basic human need to belong since we are wired to connect as social animals.”

What if your friends are having fun without you?

Getty Images / Jerod Harris

North experienced this first-hand on a work trip in Australia. His colleagues were slightly younger and far more engaged with social media. “They would be upset if they didn’t get a certain amount of likes!” he recalls. (Which, yep.)

When North returned to England, he noticed his friends were more hooked than he realized. “Sunday morning, they’re all just sitting on their phones. Forty minutes go by and nobody’s even said a word to each other!” The constant buzz of getting notifications compelled them to stay engaged. North’s decision to turn off notifications severed one of Facebook’s strongest lines between people and the app.

Data from Statista shows Facebook gained more than 200 million users in the past year, reaching over 1.7 billion users in the second quarter of 2016. The company is investing in Aquila drones to bring internet access to far-reaching corners of the globe, too. Soon, the last two billion people on the globe without a connection will have one. Anyone who wants to change will have to do it themselves: Facebook isn’t going anywhere.

Eyal argues that people shouldn’t feel compelled to ditch Facebook, though: “Do we want companies to stop making products we like?” he wonders. “Part of me is really frustrated and annoyed with this, the most first-world problem we could ever imagine. You don’t pay for it, and it’s so good that we can’t stop using it, and we love it so much!”

North may be in the minority, but it seems that dropping the habit was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He still keeps his iPhone handy, but now finds himself actually living in the moment.

“I love to go to something, experience it and enjoy it, and I never reach for my phone,” he said.

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