Slot Machines

By Mark Nuyens
6 min. read📱 Technology

Maybe it's time we start treating social media platforms, especially vertical video feeds, as addictive like gambling or smoking.

Whenever the subject of video platforms like TikTok, Instagram or YouTube comes up these days, it's hard to ignore their addictive tendencies. Using various tactics to trigger dopamine hits and encourage continuous usage, these apps seem to be designed specifically to keep their users engaged for as long as possible. While not officially classified as gambling apps, they provide a similar experience of anticipation and reward. The algorithmic nature of TikTok, for example, keeps users scrolling and waiting for the next moment of entertainment. Yes, exactly like a slot machine. Of course, this issue extends beyond smartphones to other devices like computers, laptops, TVs, and soon VR headsets. And in the near future, virtual places like the Metaverse will likely leverage the same tactics to keep their users engaged for as long as possible.

Given how these apps are mostly associated with moments of entertainment, the challenging part is to consider the time invested versus the rewards gained. One could argue whether we're even capable of objectively determining if our time was well spent, given our level of investment. Most times, we find ourselves spending excessive amounts of time on these platforms without even realizing it. This phenomenon, known as doom scrolling, occurs when we become trapped in an endless cycle of browsing, hoping for the next rewarding experience. This behavior is not exclusive to TikTok and Instagram, by the way; other platforms like LinkedIn also use similar ways to keep you engaged.

As for these tech companies, it's all about converting that user engagement into valuable data and ad revenue. At first, these platforms were pretty much ad-free. But now that they’ve got people hooked, they’ve started seeing a return on their investment. Their goal is to get the most of our attention, one way or another. And it appears that the most effective way to do so is by leveraging our internal reward system, which keeps us constantly stimulated and seeking that feeling of satisfaction. As a result, we fear missing out on great content if we don't engage with the apps, and regretting the time we've not spent on them.

It's hard not to notice the similarity to visiting a casino, especially when you consider this experience with the persuasive nature of gambling. Leaving the casino can make one feel like missing out on another winning streak, while realizing how losing again isn’t worth it either. This feeling of being stuck between two uncomfortable places of doubt and uncertainty is inherent to the nature of casinos, and basically the only solution is to avoid entering them in the first place. In this respect, ignorance can be bliss. If we don't know what we're potentially missing out on, then we're not truly missing out on anything, right?

While one could argue that even traditional media like newspapers and magazines can have a similar effect, the main difference is that social media is never fully consumed. Unlike a newspaper that you can eventually finish reading, social media platforms like TikTok offer endless feeds of content. Meanwhile, they continuously refine their algorithms to become even more effective over time. The associated data is then shared across millions of platforms and users, allowing for collective evaluation to determine the most effective content.

While banning platforms like TikTok may be tempting, it may not be a sustainable solution; instead, research should be done to fully understand the overlap between social media and other addictive behaviors like gambling. Once a direct link is established, society can begin treating these platforms as addictive and raise awareness about their effects on our well-being. They might even be categorized alongside gambling due to their addictive nature, while implementing warnings and educational material to raise awareness among users.

In the future, we may look back on our current obsession with smartphones, in particular these kinds of apps, the same way we now look back on things like smoking on airplanes. Sure, it may have seemed acceptable at the time, but fortunately, we have since moved on. Society recognized the negative impact of this kind of behavior and has shifted towards promoting healthier lifestyles. Although it may take some time, let's hope one day we replace doom scrolling with more productive and sustainable forms of digital consumption.