Persuasive Design: 6 Features Social Media Companies Use To Deliberately Influence Your Behaviour

25 April 2023 |
Episode 14 |
31:43

Episode summary

Ever wondered if social media was designed to be addictive? You’d be right! In this episode, I explain how platforms like Facebook and Instagram are deliberately designed to keep you hooked. I discuss how behavioural psychology and classical conditioning play a crucial role in shaping your behaviour, and how social media companies exploit these principles to keep you engaged for longer periods of time. I explore the power of social media algorithms to automate and optimise your behaviour change, and share 6 persuasive design features that are particularly effective at keeping you coming back for more. I also challenge you to take part in a 7 day “no notifications” challenge, where you’ll turn off all non-essential social media notifications to see how it affects your relationship with social media.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • The methods social media platforms use to capture as much of your time and attention as possible
  • Behavioural psychology and how we learn behaviours through classical conditioning because of interactions with our external environment
  • How social media companies exploit behaviourism by using persuasive design features in their platforms to deliberately influence and change your behaviour
  • The power of social media algorithms and how they use your individual behaviour to adapt and optimise themselves, so that social media becomes more addictive to you
  • 6 persuasive design features and how they work together to keep you coming back to social media for increasingly long periods of time
  • The 7 day “no notifications” challenge

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re all good and that you’re having a great day. I am back fighting fit this week. I think I’m finally over the really horrible sinusitis that I had. So, hopefully, I’m sounding a little bit better in your ears today.

[00:00:52] Now, if you’ve listened to last week’s episode, then you’ll know that we’re currently right at the beginning of a little mini-series all about social media. We’re digging into your experiences of social media, why they are what they are, and the impact that they’re having on your wellbeing, both in a positive and a negative sense.

[00:01:12] So, if you haven’t listened to last week’s episode yet, which was the first one in the series, then I really recommend that you go and check it out. Because these episodes are all a bit like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s only when you put them all together that you’ll be able to see the bigger picture.

[00:01:29] And, while you’re at it, make sure that you hit subscribe, or follow, or whatever the button says on the podcast platform that you’re listening on, so that you’ll get notified each week when there’s a new episode, and you can follow along with the whole series. Plus, you know, there are all these other digital wellness topics that are in the pipeline, so there’s plenty to look forward to.

[00:01:50] To recap briefly, last week we talked about the business of social media and the attention economy. I explained how social media companies make their money and why you’re not the customer but the product, because it’s access to your time and attention that social media companies get paid for by advertisers.

[00:02:11] In addition to that, behavioural data about you, that the social media platforms gather, gives advertisers insights into what you like, what you don’t like, when you buy, and when you don’t buy. All so that they can target you with the advertising for their products and services that’s most likely to be effective on you, and therefore result in a sale for them.

[00:02:32] Today, we’re going to be talking about exactly how social media platforms make sure that they have as much of your time and attention as they possibly can. What specific methods do they use in order to maximise the amount of advertising that they can show you, and therefore maximise the amount of money that they can make?

[00:02:51] I hinted at it last week, but we’re going to go into the details now. So buckle up, because it’s time to talk about persuasive design features. In order to understand how persuasive design features work and why they’re so effective, we need to take one step back and understand some basic behavioural psychology.

[00:03:11] Behaviourism is essentially a theory about how we learn. It suggests that all of our behaviours are learned as the result of interactions that we have with our external environment through a process known as conditioning. So, if you think about when you touch something and it’s hot, you learn from that interaction not to touch that thing because it will burn you.

[00:03:31] It’s very basic stuff, but when we view all our behaviours as a response to an external stimulus, it means that we can study our behaviours in a very systematic way, because it’s a simple cause and effect kind of model. Which means that we then have a way to observe, and measure, and quantify our behaviours in response to various different interactions.

[00:03:53] The most famous example of this is Pavlov’s dogs, a classical conditioning psychology experiment, which you may or may not have heard of, that provided the foundation for behavioural psychology. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work studying digestive processes. So, nothing to do with psychology! But his contribution to the discovery and development of what’s now known as classical conditioning was an accident.

[00:04:23] Pavlov was studying digestion in dogs, and he and his assistants would bring a variety of edible and non-edible items into the room, and measure the saliva produced by those items in the dogs that he was studying. Over time, he noticed that the dogs would start to salivate whenever he or his assistants entered the room, way before they were even presented with any of these items, and regardless of whether there was any food or the smell of food in the room.

[00:04:52] Pavlov realised that this salivation was a learned response. The dogs were responding to the sight of him and his research assistants in their white coats, because they’d come to associate that with the presentation of food. So, Pavlov conducted a series of experiments where he tried to recreate this result by provoking the salivation as a conditioned response, in response to a stimulus in the external environment that was previously neutral and had no effect on the dogs.

[00:05:21] He chose the sound of a metronome, which is a timekeeping device in music, and initially he would play the sound of the ticking metronome before presenting the dogs with food. After several conditioning trials, Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate when they heard the metronome, even if no food was presented to them.

[00:05:40] Now, Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning is a really important contribution to behavioural psychology, and I don’t want you to think that it’s all bad. We use classical conditioning techniques to support people with making behavioural modifications and in some therapeutic mental health interventions. So, in and of itself, it’s not bad.

[00:06:02] The difficulty comes when classical conditioning is used to condition us, as human beings, so that we’ll behave in a certain way, without us really realising that it’s happening. And that’s exactly what social media platforms are doing by making use of persuasive design features. We’re effectively being treated like Pavlov’s dogs by social media companies.

[00:06:24] Persuasive design is a practice where products and services are intentionally built with specific features, or have specific features introduced into them, with the deliberate intention of influencing or changing user behaviour. Persuasive design leverages our understanding of behavioural psychology by deliberately putting features into your external environment that will condition you to keep returning to social media platforms, and keep spending longer amounts of time there on each visit that you make.

[00:06:56] And, as I’ve already mentioned, often this change in your behaviour happens unconsciously. It’s not something that you’re stopping to think about. Let me break that down for you. We’ve all been there when we’ve said that we’re only going on Instagram for three minutes, and then three hours later we’re still there. And we’re not really sure how it happens. We’re not even sure when it started happening, because initially we were able to spend three minutes on the platform and then put it down and go and do something else.

[00:07:25] But, over time, our behaviour has changed. We’ve learned to spend more and more time on Instagram, and this change happened so unconsciously. We don’t remember ever deciding that we would spend a little bit more time on Instagram. It’s almost like we woke up one day and suddenly realised that we’re behaving in a completely different way, and interacting with the social media platforms that we use in a completely different way to how we first were, or how we thought we were.

[00:07:54] It’s a little bit mad when you actually stop and think about it. And it’s happened, in part, because social media platforms have something that Pavlov didn’t: algorithms. Pavlov had to observe, and measure, and quantify, and adjust his experiments manually in order to train his dogs to respond to different stimuli. Social media algorithms automate this process.

[00:08:18] Social media algorithms compound your learning because they can observe, and measure, and compute much more information about your behaviour much faster than any human ever could. And then, they can optimise what you’re being shown on the platform automatically to encourage you to exhibit the behaviours that social media companies want you to have, i.e. spending more time on their platforms. And this happens irrespective of whether this is in your best interest or what you actually want for yourself.

[00:08:49] Not only is this process automated, but it operates at a very individual level. What’s likely to make me stay on Instagram and keep scrolling or watching reels is probably different to what keeps you scrolling and watching reels. And the algorithm knows this information.

[00:09:06] So, for example, I get totally hooked on videos of miniature dachshunds, because I have Luna, my own miniature dachshund, and I find the videos really relatable. That’s very specific. It’s not videos of all dogs, it’s specifically miniature dachshunds. Whereas, someone else might not care about miniature dachshunds or dogs at all, but they get hooked on cat videos instead.

[00:09:30] Machine learning algorithms allow social media platforms to adjust themselves to show you more of what will keep you online, and me more of what will keep me online. Which, ultimately, keeps us both online for longer looking at more of that same stuff, as we develop self-reinforcing habits that result in an addictive feedback loop.

[00:09:51] Social media platforms are using your own behaviour, and the interactions that they have with you, to adapt and change themselves to make themselves more addictive and attractive to you. It’s a vicious cycle. And the icing on the cake is that it’s not just social media making use of these features. Ecommerce websites, entertainment platforms like Netflix, video games, and even some everyday run-of-the-mill apps use them too.

[00:10:20] So you might be asking, what exactly these features are? You probably use them all the time, or you’re exposed to them all the time, but you don’t give them much thought. And that’s kind of the point, right? It’s unconscious. There are six persuasive design features that I’m going to share with you today, and I’m going to talk about them all mostly in the context of Instagram, so that it’s a bit easier to understand how they collude with each other to get you to stay online.

[00:10:47] But they’re all based on leveraging and exploiting these basic principles of behaviourism, which is why they’re so successful at it. And I have to say that when I first learned about these features, it was like something clicked in my brain. I finally understood why and how we end up spending so much time online.

[00:11:05] Because it’s not like we were given extra hours in the day when social media arrived. A day is still 24 hours long. The time that we’re spending on social media, and online in general, is the time that we used to spend doing all these other amazing and incredible things. Or time that we could be spending in pursuit of other amazing and incredible experiences in our lives.

[00:11:29] The first feature is what’s known as intermittent variable rewards. Now, this sounds a bit more wordy and complicated than it actually is. It’s basically features that provide you with a reward for using the platform, but that reward will vary in how often you receive it, and how big it is. So, sometimes it will be there and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will be a small reward and sometimes it will be a big one. It’s a bit like Forrest Gump and his life is like a box of chocolates quote, you never know what you’re going to get.

[00:12:02] What this does is it encourages you to repeat certain behaviours in anticipation that this might result in you either receiving a bigger reward, or receiving a reward more often. It’s the same reason that people play and become addicted to slot machines. Maybe the next coin you put in will make you hit the jackpot, you just never know.

[00:12:24] We’ll talk a little bit more about the exact mechanisms behind this next week when we start getting into neurohormones and how all these features tap into your innate survival instincts. But for now, all you need to understand is this: if you knew exactly what you were going to get every time you opened up Instagram, so you knew that you’d have a new picture in your feed, you knew that this picture would be of some decadent meal in a fancy restaurant, and you knew that it would be posted by your best friend, it wouldn’t have the same effect.

[00:12:56] Whereas, in reality, each time you open up Instagram, you never know what you’re going to get. Even when you get notifications from Instagram saying that you have new posts waiting, or that someone you follow hasn’t posted in a while, or that you should check out today’s most popular reels. In fact, even when you refresh your feed, you never know exactly what you’re going to see.

[00:13:19] Sometimes you don’t know who the post will be from. Sometimes you don’t know what the content’s going to be and whether it’s going to be something that makes you laugh, makes you cry, or makes you stop and think, and want to share the post with your friends or followers. You don’t even know how many new posts, or reels, or stories, or comments, or likes on your last post you’re going to find.

[00:13:38] Everything is one great big unknown. So you just keep on opening up Instagram and scrolling through and tapping around, in anticipation of what you’ll be rewarded with. And that’s what we mean when we talk about intermittent variable rewards.

[00:13:54] The second feature is what’s known as instant interruption. These are features that capitalise on your fear of missing out on something important or missing out altogether. And, let’s be honest, we’ve all experienced FOMO, or fear of missing out, at one time or another.

[00:14:11] Queen of instant interruptions is notifications. You might think that these are helpful and intended to alert you to something that’s actually important and that requires your immediate attention. But if that were the case, then half the notifications that we get wouldn’t be needed.

[00:14:27] Notifications come in various different forms. You have push notifications that will either make a message banner pop up on your screen or make a badge appear on the app’s icon, in red, with a number to show how many notifications you have requiring your attention.

[00:14:43] You also receive in-app notifications within the social media app that you’re using. So, for example, on Instagram you have a little red dot that appears next to the heart icon at the top when you have new likes and comments, a bigger red notification with a little head and torso if you have new followers, and more red dots when you have new DMs.

[00:15:01] And you might have spotted that all these notifications are all red. That’s also deliberate. As humans, we’re already conditioned to respond to red signals because the colour signifies that something urgently requires our attention. So these notifications are very hard to ignore. If you’ve ever tried, then you’ll know it’s pretty difficult. They’re like an itch that you have to scratch. There’s even a growing discussion about how anxiety-inducing these little red badges are.

[00:15:30] To complete this trifecta of instant interruption, you may also be getting emails every time there’s something to see. In fact, if you are getting emails, then you’re probably also getting notification badges and notification banners about the email, that’s about the thing that’s waiting for you on Instagram.

[00:15:46] So you can see that they are determined to get you back on the platform. And email and push notifications interrupt whatever you’re doing and encourage you to go there right now. In-app notifications, on the other hand, are designed to keep you there if you’re already there. And, because you don’t want to miss out on anything, you have to open up the app or tap on the notifications, and start scrolling and tapping around.

[00:16:10] In many ways, these notifications also leverage the intermittent variable rewards feature, because very often the text of notifications is generic. When you get those notifications that say, “Hey, check out today’s most popular reels” or, “Your friend Lucy just posted for the first time in a while” or, “Jamie is going live now,” you’re not being told exactly what it is you’re going to get. You don’t get a preview, you get just enough to tempt and tease you that you stop what you’re doing and open up Instagram, so that you don’t miss out. Which is, of course, exactly what they want.

[00:16:46] The third feature is scarcity. So features that create a sense of urgency around your actions, because we tend to view things as being more desirable and more valuable if they’re in short or limited supply. And we see this even in real life. If you’ve listened to Episode 12, then you’ll remember the story about YouTubers, KSI and Logan Paul’s Prime energy drink. As soon as the stocks ran out in UK supermarkets, people started reselling bottles of the drink for crazy amounts of money on eBay, and people were willing to pay. The perceived value of the drink went up because it was scarce and in short supply.

[00:17:26] In the context of Instagram, scarcity is introduced through something like Instagram stories. Stories are only available for 24 hours before they disappear forever, at least from the stories position at the top of the screen, where they have a prime position for the people that are following you.

[00:17:43] You can add expired stories to your profile as story highlights, but this requires people to navigate to your profile page in order to engage with them. So, if you don’t go on Instagram for 24 hours, you’re going to miss a bunch of story content from the people that you follow, which keeps you coming back onto the platform at least every day.

[00:18:04] The fourth feature is what’s known as social reciprocity. These are features that exploit this weird, inherent obligation that we feel as humans to return someone’s actions or favours. And the best example of this is probably the follow back button. When someone already follows you, if you then view their profile, the button for you to follow them won’t say “Follow” anymore, it will say “Follow back”. It’s very subtle, but it’s a nudge that says, hey, you know, this person’s already following you, and it reinforces the innate obligation that you naturally feel to return the favour by following them back.

[00:18:43] It’s a similar case when it comes to likes, and comments, and tagging other people’s accounts. If you see a post in your feed from someone that’s tagged you, or you’ve been tagged in the comments beneath that post, or you see that someone commented beneath one of your own posts, then you instinctively feel obligated to respond as a way of reciprocating the energy that they’ve invested in connecting with you.

[00:19:07] That response might just be liking or responding with an emoji to their comment or their post to acknowledge that you’ve seen it, read it, and enjoyed it, but it’s a response nonetheless. And this is another of those features that’s been tied together with instant interruption features, because you can’t say that you didn’t see a post or see a message or comment, and give that as the reason why you didn’t reply. People will call you out for it in real life. They’ll assume that you got a notification.

[00:19:37] We’ve all had a friend demand to know why you haven’t responded to that funny meme that they tagged you in, or start talking about a place they want to visit, and when you give them a blank stare because you have no idea what they’re talking about, they reference the DM that they sent you on Instagram.

[00:19:53] This feature is definitely responsible for keeping us on social media for longer than planned. It’s simply not in our nature not to reciprocate. I don’t know if you’ve ever been stuck in an email loop with someone, where you say something, and then they say thank you and give you a compliment. And then you say thank you for the compliment and give them another compliment, and then they say thank you again for the compliment that you gave them. And the emails just keep going back and forth, even though there’s not really anything more to say, but you feel that you have to respond, and acknowledge whatever has been written by saying thank you, at the very least. That is social reciprocity at work.

[00:20:31] The fifth feature is a pretty big one and it’s called social approval. Features that are based on this are probably the ones that you’re most aware of. These are features that rely on our need to receive praise or validation from our peers, all to say that the decisions and the opinions that we make are correct.

[00:20:52] This shows up in the form of likes and comments. If you post a picture of yourself from an amazing holiday, or eating at an amazing restaurant, or because you got yourself all dolled up for a night out, you’re expecting people to respond. You’re expecting that people will like, you’re expecting that people will comment. If you’re more of an influencer type person, then you’re expecting that people will share your content with others. We are very, very hot on social approval.

[00:21:22] We’ll talk a little bit more about why we seek out this validation, and how it works from a neuroscience perspective in next week’s episode. But by now it should be fairly obvious why this works to keep you on social media. It isn’t enough to just have these experiences and post moments captured from them up on social media. We have to keep going back online to check what the response from our peers is, and this is how this behaviour becomes addictive.

[00:21:49] We feel a certain way if we don’t get those likes and comments, if we don’t get that social approval or social validation. And if we don’t get it, or it doesn’t match up to what we had expected, so we don’t get as many likes or comments as we were hoping for, we try to solve for this by posting yet more content in the hopes of a better response.

[00:22:08] And if this is all starting to sound a bit familiar and you’re thinking, hang on, where have I heard this story before? Then no, you’re not going mad. This unpredictability, this anticipation of the unknown size and frequency of the reward that we might get for posting plays into intermittent variable rewards too.

[00:22:28] The sixth and final feature is something that we touched on last week when we were talking about YouTube, and it’s the absence of stopping cues. In your natural environment, you would normally have some kind of sign that an experience is finished or that it’s coming to an end.

[00:22:44] So, if you think about when you’re watching a movie, the credits roll at the end. If you’re in the theatre, the curtains come down and the lights go up. Even in nature, when the sun starts to set, you know that your day is coming to an end, even if you don’t go to sleep straight away and you stay up late at night on social media.

[00:23:04] Taking away stopping cues takes away natural indicators that your experience of social media is finished or should end, and that encourages you to unconsciously spend more of your time on platforms than you originally intended. Last week, we talked about the autoplay feature on YouTube. So, instead of the video you’re watching coming to an end, and that being your signal to stop watching, a new video starts playing automatically.

[00:23:29] But the king of taking away stopping cues is actually Netflix. When you’re watching a series, one episode always rolls straight into the next. So you never end up watching just one episode, you binge watch the whole series in one sitting. And even now, when you finish whatever you’re watching, Netflix shows you three recommendations for three other programmes and starts auto-playing them in turn, so that you literally don’t have any stopping cues.

[00:23:57] On Instagram, the absence of stopping cues shows up in the form of the feeds which you can infinitely scroll through. There’s no end to your feed or to the explore page. You never reach the bottom because it doesn’t exist. And, even if you think you’re nearing the end, all you have to do is pull down the feed to refresh it, and a boatload of new stuff will come in at the top. Which means there’s never a point where you say, “I went on Instagram. I looked at the five new posts that have been created since 30 seconds ago, when I was last here. And now I’m done.” Instead, you just keep scrolling and you keep refreshing in a vicious cycle.

[00:24:35] So, as you can see, the power of all these different features combined is huge. And it’s really no wonder that we’re all struggling to get off of social media, or at least cut down the amount of time that we spend there. It’s not by accident. It’s deliberate and it’s by design. The force is much bigger than we are, and the odds have been stacked against us from the start. It doesn’t matter if you have work to do, laundry to fold, or you should really be hanging out with your friends, or your partner, or your family. Social media companies need you to stay online because otherwise they don’t make money.

[00:25:11] Now, if you’re anything like me, then your head might be exploding a little bit right now. When I first learned about all of these persuasive design features, my mind was completely blown. It’s one of the things that stayed with me the most from my coach training, and it’s the moment that the penny dropped and I stopped feeling like I was just the weak link and unable to resist the temptation of social media.

[00:25:34] I really used to think, what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just go online for five minutes and be done with it? Why do I find it so hard to put these platforms down? And, although all these features and the ways that they leverage behavioural psychology seem so obvious once someone points it out to you, until that happens I think most of us are walking around completely ignorant as to how we’re being manipulated. At least I know that I was.

[00:26:00] Oftentimes in coaching, the first bit of work that you do is really about awareness and understanding where you’re at. Understanding what’s happening and then trying to get deeper to understand why. And I think knowing about persuasive design and how it’s applied to technology has really made me feel less guilty and more conscious of my social media habits, with an understanding of why they are the way they are. So, I really hope that it will do the same for you.

[00:26:28] Next week, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, we’re going to be talking about what’s happening inside of your brain and your body in response to all these features at a neuroscientific level. Today, we’ve really talked about the things in your external environment that cause you to keep going back to social media and keep you there for a really long time. And it might seem like there’s no hope, but there is another layer to this, and you can override the power of these features. It just takes a bit of work.

[00:26:55] Persuasive design, and behaviourism in general, reduce us to being nothing more advanced than those same animals that we used in Pavlov’s original experiments. They assume that we can be conditioned to behave in a certain way, and that we have no control or free will over our actions. And that’s simply not true. Once you are aware of what’s happening, which now you definitely are, you can start to make more conscious decisions about how you behave, and unlearn the things that social media automatically taught you without you realising.

[00:27:26] So, next week, we’ll dig deeper into what’s going on in your brain when it comes to social media and how you can start to do that. In the meantime, it’s time for this week’s challenge. It’s another easy one for you this week, but one that I think will be really impactful. You may have already done it, and if so, hats off to you. But if you haven’t, I always think this one is a bit of a game changer.

[00:27:49] Your challenge this week is to turn off as many notifications for your social media apps as you can. Look at the notifications that you have and decide whether you genuinely need them or not. As we’ve talked about, typically there are three kinds of notifications: email notifications, app badge or banner notifications, and in-app notifications. So, at the very least, I would suggest that you don’t need both email notifications and badge or banner notifications turned on. One of the two would probably suffice.

[00:28:21] If you’re feeling really brave and ready to go nuclear, which is what I’ve done, then turn off all notifications. I promise you it’s one of the most liberating things that you will ever do. Some platforms don’t make it easy. So, Instagram, for example, has a temporary pause; a pause for notifications at night; an email toggle; a bunch of separate toggles within different categories where you can stop notifications on different features like posts, stories, lives, reels, and then choose whether you don’t want these notifications at all, or from everyone, or only the people that you follow.

[00:28:59] And if you’ve listened to Episode 4 of the podcast, then you’ll have heard me talk about how having too many choices is actually counterintuitive, and often ends up in us not making a choice at all. The optimist in me says that Instagram wants to give you as much control as possible by offering you this level of choice about your notifications. But the realist in me says that they’re hoping you’ll feel so overwhelmed by all these choices that you’ll just leave them all on, as they are by default. So, don’t let this put you off. Persevere!

[00:29:30] And then see what your experience is like for the next week with no or fewer social media notifications. Do you find that you’re going on social media less? Do you find that you’re staying on social media for less time? And, in the absence of notifications, what is it that causes you to go on social media in the first place?

[00:29:50] Now, these are three really important questions, and they’ll really set you up for what we’re going to be talking about next week. Don’t just turn off your notifications, observe your behaviour, because what happens is usually quite interesting. The place to let me know how you get on and to connect with other listeners taking part in the challenge is in The Digital Diet Lounge, our dedicated community space for all things digital wellness.

[00:30:14] If you haven’t been there before, then come and join us, it’s completely free. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. You can find the show notes over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/014, and that’s also where you’ll find links to everything that we’ve talked about today.

[00:30:33] That’s it for this week’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that I’ve helped you to understand at least part of the reason why three minutes turns into three hours every time you go on social media. There’s plenty more to come in this little mini social media series, so make sure that you subscribe, or follow, or whatever the button says on the platform that you’re listening on, so you don’t miss a thing. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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