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Designed to addict. Will the EU regulate online services?

Designed to addict. Will the EU regulate online services?

Image source: © canva
Marta Grzeszczuk,
28.07.2023 12:00

The European Parliament is looking at the addictive design of many online services. How do the latter influence our mental health?

The European Parliament (EP) has published a draft report on the addictive design of online services and its impact on mental health. By addictive design the report's authors mean the many techniques online platforms use to draw their users attention for even longer periods of time.

How are we addicted to screens?

The draft report mentions practices such as the default auto-play we know from Spotify or Netflix, reloading web content with a "pull-to-refresh" gesture, "infinite scrolling", i.e. being presented with more and more news or videos to consume (by YouTube, for instance).

Another example, as euractiv.com reports, is receiving likes, which gives the brain a surge of dopamine which is a neurotransmitter that, among other things, motivates us to act by means of a feeling of pleasure. The draft report also mentions so-called read-receipts that put pressure on messaging apps’ users to respond to messages immediately, and app notifications that draw consumers back to the platforms.

All these app features are designed to keep us glued to the screen for as long as possible. And they are very effective at doing so. As we can learn from EP's draft, on average, one in four 16-24 year-olds spends more than seven hours a day online. Meanwhile, just two to three hours in front of a screen is described as excessive screen time.

What are the consequences of internet addiction?

In many ways, the consequences of Internet addiction are no different from those caused by compulsive use of psychoactive substances such as alcohol or drugs. These include attention deficits, shorter attention spans, impulsivity, neurodevelopmental disorders, reduced cognitive abilities, and learning and memory difficulties, euractiv.com reports.

Screen abusers are twice as likely to experience mental health problems such as depression, low self-esteem, self-perception disorders, eating disorders, anxiety, high stress levels, neglect of family and friends, loss of self-control or sleep disorders.

The authors of the report stress that despite being as addictive as alcohol or drugs, online services are much less regulated in the EU. They call on the European Commission to "urgently close existing regulatory gaps with regard to consumer vulnerabilities," by presenting legislation against addictive design of web and mobile apps.

According to the draft report’s authors, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, Consumer Rights Directive and Unfair Contract Terms Directive need to be revised in this respect.

Source: euractiv.com

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