Social media, persuasive technology and the attention economy: an urgent public health problem

Richard Armitage is a GP and Public Health Specialty Registrar affiliated with the Division of Epidemiology & Public Health at the University of Nottingham. He is on Twitter: @drricharmitage

The staggering evolution of the globally shared information environment, driven by the democratisation of high-speed internet and the near-ubiquitous uptake of mobile smart phones, has generated over four billion currently active users of digital social media and video sharing platforms.

Worldwide, some 490 million additional users adopted social media between January 2020 and January 2021, and now engage on these platforms for an average of 2 hours 25 minutes each day.1 However, while the the stated objective of their founding entrepreneurs may be the promotion of connectivity and community participation, the mutation of these platforms, and the severity and range of their resulting health consequences, deviates their progress dramatically off course.

Social media platform founders are under immense pressure from their financial backers to deliver colossal returns through relentless company growth. The business model used to drive this expansion – namely the provision of digital services that are free of charge to the user but incorporate targeted ads and the mass harvesting of data – necessitates maximal user engagement and time spent on site, a strategy to secure profitable market share in the new ‘attention economy’.

The harms to human health, cognition and social relationships are becoming increasingly apparent.

In such an environment, and with billions of dollars available for frontier research and development, these tech giants have created, optimised and deployed an elaborative suite of staggeringly powerful digital tools collectively referred to as ‘persuasive technology.’ When unleashed on social media users, these mechanisms are intentionally designed to manipulate attitudes, amplify distraction, and promote user behaviours that are habitual, predictable, and helplessly compulsive, to maximise engagement and time spent on site.2

The resulting behemoth is accurately described as “a supercomputer pointing at your brain,”3 a god-like technology exquisitely adapted to maximally exploit palaeolithic human emotions4 through the subliminal hijacking of the user’s attention, the exploitation of their instincts, and the theft of their autonomy.

With over half of humanity now engaged on these platforms, the harms to human health, cognition and social relationships are becoming increasingly apparent, alarming, and in urgent need of response.

For example, the incorporation of these platforms into modern life brings a significant cost to finite human cognitive resources. The level of social media use on a given day is associated with an increase in memory failure the following day. Three months after initial adoption, heavy use of smartphones is associated with reduced numerical processing capacity, impaired deliberate attention, and changes in cognition within the social domain. And the mere presence of these devices in close proximity to the user significantly reduces their cognitive abilities.

Concerning the impact on social relationships, the presence of a mobile device reduces feelings of empathy, closeness, and trust between two people. Infants show greater unhappiness, fewer positive emotions, and less playful behaviour when their parents use mobile devices for two minutes during playtime. And experiences photographed for the purpose of social media sharing are engaged in and enjoyed less than those photographed for the user’s own pleasure.

The use of persuasive technology in social media platforms should be regarded as a public health problem of urgent priority.

Regarding the impacts on mental wellbeing, deactivating a user’s Facebook account for a four-month period significantly reduces loneliness and improves emotional wellbeing. The self-rating of women’s own facial appearances reduces in proportion to the number of ‘likes’ attached to each thin-ideal Instagram image they are exposed to online. And posting alcohol-related Facebook messages is associated with increased alcoholic behaviour and alcoholic identity in the real world.5

Given the scale and intensity of social media use globally, the financial incentives at work in the industry, and the growing body of evidence on its impacts on health, the use of persuasive technology in social media platforms should be regarded as a public health problem of urgent priority.

While the benefits of social media use include connectivity, participation, and the broad dissemination of public health messaging, the co-existing dangers must not be ignored. Coordinated, collaborative, multi-sector action is urgently required on a globalised scale, requiring health institutions, public health agencies, and government departments responsible for media, culture, and digital technology.

Vital to this partnership is the meaningful engagement of the platforms themselves, who should be held by the international community as legally and ethically responsible for the wider societal consequences of their coercive, exploitative, and lucrative creations.

  1. S Kemp. Digital 2021: Global Overview Report. 27 January 2021. [accessed 16 October 2021]
  2. Center for Humane Technology. How social media hacks our brains. [accessed 16 October 2021]
  3. N Thompson. When Tech Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself. Wired 10 April 2018. [accessed 16 October 2021]
  4. Quote attributed to Edward O Wilson, 1929. Oxford Essential Quotations, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2016. eISBN: 9780191826719.
  5. Center for Humane Technology. Ledger of Harms. [accessed 17 October 2021]


Featured image by Camilo Jimenez at Unsplash

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Ira Kotlik, Psy.D., modern witch

Yes, yes, yes 🙏❤️ Such an important article. Thank you!!

10 months ago

The author’s insights on the attention economy and its relationship with addictive behavior are particularly noteworthy. This article highlights the urgency of addressing this issue and calls for action to mitigate the harms caused by these technologies. Overall, this article is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of technology in our lives and its impact on our well-being.

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