If we love our dark patterns are they really dark?
If we have knowingly accepted our addictions, does this relieve us of the moral obligation to change them?
A brawl broke out in my house this morning. Me, a UX designer and screen addict and my husband, also a screen addict. Topic: YouTube autoplay default setting.
I thought it was obvious that the reason screen addiction is so pervasive in our culture and hitting teens particularly hard was at least in part due to autoplay and infinite scrolling on video apps as default settings.
(See The New Adolescence, by Christine Carter, which is chock-full of data illustrating how and why teen depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts have risen more sharply in a single decade than ever before, and are on course to exponentially increase.) Referring to our 15 year-old teenage son, Dan asked me,
“Do you really think he wants to turn off autoplay on YouTube and Netflix? I don’t even want to. Like him, I LIKE seeing the next recommended video automatically.”
In one fell swoop my husband was defending YouTube’s choice to make, what I believe to be an unethical default setting decision, certain that our son would not want to make the autoplay feature “opt-in,” that he would prefer to let the algorithm (based on his viewing history) make it for him, and rallying for his own screen/video addiction as a justified expression of his liberty as an American.
“That’s capitalism! You’re trying to put the onus on YouTube to parent our kids and limit our viewing, but they are just giving him, me and everyone what we want. Autoplay.
And I feel the same about infinite scrolling.”
Wait a minute. How could he think this? Our son was struggling with suicide four short years ago as a 5th grader due to unfettered screen immersion. I was forced to pour nine months of my life into reading every bit of material I could get my hands on to unravel what was even happening, later to determine it was ESS, electronic screen syndrome, which sources like Glow Kids, Reset Your Child’s Brain and ScreenAgers helped me understand. And now, here was my husband, on his way to drive our son to the bus stop, insisting that autoplay as a default was something he wanted and supported.
As he passed my desk to leave this morning I expected validation. I simply wanted him to agree that autoplay and endless scrolling were indeed bad, dark patterns worth writing about, and that we should jump on the bandwagon to forward legislation like Senator Hawley’s SMART (Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology) Act, which has in my mind, perfectly virtuous intentions:
“To prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice, to require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation, and for other purposes.”
After all, this is the perfect solution to at least these two dark patterns, autoplay and infinite scrolling, right? I mean, I believe, as Mark Cormack, UX aficionado begins (and later lambasts) in his Is autoplaying video Dark UX?
“The thing is… nobody asked for autoplay video. It’s a dark user pattern and it’s not something people ever desired or wanted — it only exists in pursuit of one goal: advertising dollars, or even more simply: stealing your attention back.”
But clearly my husband disagrees. And so does Mark Cormack. Even our 12 year-old daughter nodded in agreement as Dan insisted that these features were desirable.
This causes me to deeply consider… What’s happening? I live under the assumption that the most precious currency we have in our lives is not money or time, but attention. Our attention is fleeting, limited by time, and the most significant value we can offer to anyone or anything in our lives. Corporations know it. Political leaders know it. UX designers know it. All of us have the moral responsibility to use it intentionally, intelligently, and with purpose.
So if you are knowingly tapping into YouTube or Netflix or TikTok for ten minutes between classes for an entertaining brain break, then go for it. But if you find that you’ve spent the last six hours binge watching successive episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix because you couldn’t stop, and you’ve missed a deadline to submit an assignment, or slept two hours instead of eight as a result, then check yourself. Because you don’t want to end up, or have your kid end up a 40 year-old living in your mama’s basement. Or do you? Shall we conduct some user research, send out a survey, and ask if this is what Gen Z wants? Their parents want? I’d like to think we shouldn’t have to, and we can roll with the assumption that people want autonomy and independence, but I also thought autoplay and infinite scrolling were obviously dark patterns. Careful what you wish for.