Silicon Valley insiders revealed that Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are using 'behavioural cocaine' to turn people into addicts

Silicon Valley insiders revealed that Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are using 'behavioural cocaine' to turn people into addicts


Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The BBC looked at how tech firms hook people on their platforms.

  • The BBC's "Panorama" documentary has investigated how tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat get their users hooked.
  • The show spoke to Silicon Valley insiders who claim that social media companies deliberately engineer their platforms to be addictive.
  • Facebook said it is working with third parties to find out whether a habit-forming interface can impact people harmfully.

Silicon Valley insiders have told the BBC how tech firms, including Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, deliberately engineering their platforms to foster addictive behaviour.

Aza Raskin, the inventor of the infinite scroll feature which allows you to endlessly scroll down your newsfeed or timeline, said: "It's as if they're taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface. And that's the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back."

The former Jawbone and Mozilla executive said tech companies are testing people all the time to figure out the best way to get them addicted, for example by tinkering with the colour and shape of the "like" button.

"Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting," he said.

Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's "like" button, told the BBC that she herself became addicted. "When I need validation - I go to check Facebook," she said. Pearlman also said that she never intended the "like" feature to be addictive.

The BBC also spoke to former Facebook engineer Sandy Parakilas, who left the company in 2012 and has been extremely critical of its approach to privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He said that the social media giant was fully aware it promotes addictive behaviours.

"There was definitely an awareness of the fact that the product was habit-forming and addictive," he said."You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers."

It is not the first time an ex-Facebook executive has broken ranks on addiction. Former President Sean Parker said last year that the social media site was "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." He claimed that founders and creators like himself and Mark Zuckerberg understood this, "and we did it anyway."

Sean Parker

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Former president of Facebook Sean Parker.

Ime Archibong, Facebook's VP of product partnerships, told the BBC that the company is investigating whether an addiction-forming interface impacts people harmfully.

"We're working with third-party folks that are looking at habit-forming behaviours - whether it's on our platform or the internet writ large - and trying to understanding if there are elements that we do believe are bringing harm to people," he said. "So that we can shore those up and we can invest in making sure those folks are safe over time."

In 2017, Facebook admitted that excessive use of social media can have a detrimental effect on people's mental health. Business Insider has contacted Facebook for comment.

The BBC's "Panorama" documentary broadcasts in the UK on Wednesday night. It is also set to make allegations about Snap-owned Snapchat and Twitter, although the promotional material did not make clear the specifics.

Snap told the BBC that it does not use visual tricks to increase engagement. Twitter declined to comment when contacted by the BBC. Business Insider has contacted both companies for comment.