Snapchat: Social Crack for Young Consumers, A Call for Ethical Software Design


What makes the app so compelling and why do so many people use it obsessively?

Snapchat, the gamified photo messaging app that targets young consumers, has taken the youth by storm. Snapchat launched in 2011 and since exploded in usership. Over 150 million people use Snapchat on a daily basis – surpassing daily Twitter users – and the majority of Snapchatters are children and millennials, reports Bloomberg. An estimated 60 percent of 13- to 38-year-olds use Snapchat, many of which are compulsive users, snapchatting dozens or even hundreds of times a day. In fact, a whopping 9,000 photo messages or “snaps” are sent every single second on Snapchat.

What makes Snapchat so addicting?

Snapchat was purposefully and specifically engineered to trigger social recognition behaviors and cultivate addiction.
We live in a world where billion-dollar companies pay researchers and programmers to build and maintain platforms that distract consumers and get them addicted to their software. These are not “neutral” technologies, but intelligently designed programs to foster addiction.

Snapchat is a prime example, and it is one of particular concern because it has become a huge component to how young people interact. It is potentially modifying ‘normal’ behavior and using social hierarchy and social anxiety as fuel for its addictiveness. This is often happening with young people who are just sorting out the intricacies of social behavior and how to fit into a complex world.

Addictive apps like Snapchat have the potential to create false or new social pressures, behaviors and hierarchies. The app has blended behavioral science with the social triggers of teenagers – a toxic mix. One of the primary ways Snapchat is accomplishing this is by gamifying the platform to reward compulsive use, akin to Pavlovian dog training.

Here are just a few of their clever tactics:

Scores – All Snapchat users have a score under their name, which indicates the number of snaps the user has exchanged. This creates a sort of social hierarchy that generates anxiety and triggers teens to try to stay at the top.

Snapstreaks – Similarly, the Snapstreak feature shows how many consecutive days two friends have snapped each other, and rewards their devotion with an emoji. These scores are essentially their status symbols; the higher the number, the more popular they are.

Messages are deleted – An integral (and potentially dangerous) part of Snapchat is the message life of snaps. Snaps self-destruct after opening. Snapchat promptly removes them from their server. As engineers suspected, kids and teens love this feature because parents can’t see their old messages. It’s a perfect recipe for inappropriate conduct.

Trophies – Snapchat also has a trophy system to keep people on the app, doling out coveted “trophies” (badges to display on users’ profiles) for reaching certain milestones. Mind you, these trophies, like the scores, have no tangible value; they are merely the teen version of keeping up with the Jones’s.

Discover quests – Discover stories, uploaded by popular media outlets like BuzzFeed and Mashable, beckon users on quests, where they are asked to take actions like coloring items, snap and send, or otherwise consume pointless material and waste what could have been valuable time.

Filters – Another popular feature, especially amongst girls and women, are the Snapchat filters, which renders selfies that mask skin flaws and make them look younger, thinner, sexier, etc. Rarely a day goes by you that don’t see someone post a Snapchat-filtered selfie on Instagram or Facebook.


Does Snapchat have a positive social impact? Or is it social crack?

Like the food industry has figured out how to exploit primitive human desires and encourage excessive consumption with distilled versions of food like refined sugars, salt, and fat, so has Snapchat figured out how to exploit young people’s primitive social triggers and capitalize on it.

In attention economy where companies win by getting our time – and in our culture where children are raised from toddlerhood on wireless mobile devices outfitted with social apps – we need to wake up and realize what is happening. Snapchat is currently valued at over $20 billion. Social crack is big business.

The tech industry has a responsibility to acknowledge the downside of new technologies. We have to ask ourselves whether gamified social platforms like Snapchat are technologies that benefit or harm the end user. What do users get in return for their time and attention? Anxiety, increased social expectations, inappropriate conduct, bullying, and addictions that rob them from experiencing life organically.

The fact of the matter is that the focus of social applications should be on improving life for users, not causing more addictions. Social media engineering and marketing should be beneficial or at the very least benign. Companies need to consider the long-term impact of their products and services and the collateral damage they cause.


The time is now for the development of ethical software

As a technology expert with 20 years in the industry and a father of two teenagers, I am an advocate for positive design. The Medium changes the way we interact. Rather than allowing social technologies to hijack our children (or our own time, for that matter) – we must raise awareness for moral integrity in software design.

Products should help us spend our time well and improve our lifestyle. We don’t need to unplug completely, just prune and refine the good to make it better and discard the harmful.

There is a growing number of thought leaders who agree. Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, is leading a new movement that seeks to change the fundamentals of software design. His advocacy group Time Well Spent urges product developers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” for software that restores people’s free agency. Harris notes in The Atlantic: “There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards. There is a way to design based not on addiction.”

For more information or to join the conversation about ethical deign, check out Time Well Spent