Why Are Some Websites Addictive?


The main reason websites are addictive.

It’s no secret that big tech companies make their websites addictive. In August 2018, 50 psychologists openly accused social media companies for using hidden manipulation techniques to keep people hooked. Even a high ranking ex-employee from Google is speaking out against these techniques. These hidden manipulation techniques are called persuasive design.

Persuasive design is the main reason why websites are addictive. Website designers use it to influence your behavior. It’s the reason why you constantly check for notifications or accidentally spent hours on YouTube.

Examples of persuasive design.


Screenshot of some notifications that help make websites addictive.

That’s right, these bright, juicy red circles with numbers in them. You can find these on Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn, just to name a few.

The color red is weakness of ours. In fact, our brains are wired to prioritize red and green over other colors. They give us a sense of urgency, and companies love to use that against us.

Notifications also exploit human curiosity. When you get a notification, you immediately start thinking about what it could be. This makes your brain release a chemical called dopamine, which psychiatrists say, motivates you to act on your curiosity. Essentially, making you click the notification to find out what it is.

To make matters worse, the time between notifications and the types of notifications vary greatly. This is done on purpose to provide a variable reward system that leads you constantly check for new notifications.

All in all, notifications play a big role in making websites addictive.

Pro tip: Make your phone screen go grayscale. Also, disable notifications on Facebook and unsubscribe from any email notifications.

Bonus Pro tip: Turn off push notifications for apps that don’t deserve your immediate attention. Here’s how, for Android and iOS.

Infinite Scrolling

Graphic demonstrating infinite scroll.
Graphic by: artrayd

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Imgur, BuzzFeed and many more addictive websites are guilty of this. Even reputable news sites do some form of infinite scroll.

Aza Raskin, one of the original pioneers of infinite scrolling has come to regret it’s invention. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Removing infinite scroll would cut into the profits of companies using them. So it’s probably fair to say, they aren’t going anywhere.

Infinite scrolling is probably the most effective way companies have to keep you on their website longer, making their websites even more addictive.

Related Content

Screenshot of YouTube's related content section, helping make the website addicting.

Related content also helps make websites addictive. As shown above, YouTube has it’s list of related content on the right hand side of the video.

In addition to this, they use an algorithm to determine which videos show up in this list. The algorithm uses two main data sources. First, metadata, like the length and title of a video. Second, past user behavior, like the number of clicks received when previously recommended. The algorithm then recommends videos that will hopefully keep you on YouTube longer.

Amazon also uses a similar strategy.

Screenshot of Amazon's related products.

When viewing a product on their website, you’ll see a section titled “customers who bought this item also bought.” This doesn’t make it’s website more addictive, but it does attempt to upsell you. In other words, trying to get you to buy more than what you wanted.

Auto-Playing Videos

Don’t worry. We won’t include an example. 😉

Netflix and YouTube use this a lot. If you have auto-play enabled, you’ve given them all the momentum they need to waste your time. Auto-play makes you the one responsible to stop watching endless amounts of video.

Although very annoying, many news websites auto-play videos on an article to grab your attention. Again, they want to put the onus on you to stop the video. In effect, tricking you to watch a video instead of quickly skimming the article.

Pro tip: Turn off auto-play on YouTube. You can turn it off at the top of the related video list.

Fear of Missing Out

A screenshot of what the fear of missing out looks like on a booking website.

The fear of missing out, or FOMO, persuades you to act fast. Usually, companies do this by showing visual cues of scarcity and popular demand. Booking.com notoriously litters the screen with these cues, as shown above. They even go so far as to include fully booked hotels in your search!

Amazon also uses this tactic, but they are a bit more subtle about it. They’ll usually include a line that says something like “Only 3 left in stock.”

Evoking Emotion

YouTube star using exaggerated expressions to make it's channel addictive.

Content creators have found another way to make websites more addictive. YouTube stars, in particular, use thumbnails that include exaggerated facial expressions to evoke emotion. Question marks with arrows pointing at them are all used to make you feel curious. And as we’ve covered before, curiosity leads to dopamine, which fuels your desire to watch the video.

BuzzFeed’s click-bait headlines are the text equivalent of this. Their headlines are designed to make you feel curious.

Why are they doing this to us?

Generally, a lot of the websites you feel addicted to are provided to you for free. The tech companies offering these free services make their money by showing you ads. The more time you spend on their service, the more ads they display. The more ads they display, the more money they make.

Additionally, free services run by for-profit companies need to collect data on you. Whether you’re liking somebody’s tweet, or using an angry face on your friend’s Facebook post, you’re providing data. This data is then fed into algorithms to determine your mood. When the timing is just right, they’ll display an enticing ad you won’t be able to resist.

It’s not you, it’s them.

You might be blaming yourself for being unable to stay away from these addicting websites. Don’t. Blame the companies that use persuasive design and manipulative techniques to keep you hooked.

If you want an easy way to stay off of addicting websites, our app helps you do this. Cold Turkey blocks addicting websites and applications on your desktop or laptop so that you can focus on your work.