How the Tech Industry Uses Psychology to Hook Children

Why do kids struggle to look up from devices? The answer is persuasive design.

Posted Oct 24, 2018

This guest post is written by Richard Freed, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, and Meghan Owenz, Ph.D., assistant teaching professor at Penn State University and founder of ScreenFreeParenting.com.

Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

"Something’s wrong with my son. He won’t spend time with us, won’t do his homework… all he wants to do is be in his room and play his game.”

Parents, educators, and health professionals around the world are expressing frustration and alarm that children are being lost to video games, social media, and phones. What’s vital to understand is that children’s fixation with gadgets and entertainment applications is by design. Actually, a relatively new concept called persuasive design.

Persuasive design has been in the news a lot recently. Put simply, persuasive design is the practice of combining psychology and technology to change people’s behavior. Gadgets and applications are developed by psychologists and other user experience (UX) researchers who apply behavioral change techniques to manipulate users. The concept can sound scary, however, these techniques can be used to encourage positive behaviors, such as exercise, healthy eating, and smoking cessation.

Nonetheless, persuasive design is increasingly employed by video game and social media companies to pull users onto their sites and keep them there for as long as possible—as this drives revenue. While persuasive design is applied through technology, the power to alter behavior is primarily derived from psychology. Video game developer and psychologist John Hopson describes how Skinner-box principles are used to increase video game use, comparing players to lab animals: “This is not to say that players are the same as rats, but that there are general rules of learning which apply equally to both.” In his paper “Behavioral Game Design,” Hopson explains how psychology is used to keep players staring at screens, answering questions such as: “How do we make players maintain a high, consistent rate of activity?” and “How to make players play forever.”

Persuasive design works by creating digital environments that users believe fulfill their basic human drives — to be social or obtain goals — better than real-world alternatives. Specific techniques used by psychologists and other UX designers to hook users include the use of variable rewards, as video games and social networks are designed to act like slot machines. “Likes,” friend requests, game rewards, and loot boxes are doled out at just the right time to increase what’s referred to in the industry as “time on device.”

Persuasive Design’s Power Over Children and Teens

Many adults, influenced by persuasive design, are challenged to look away from their phones. However, children and teenagers are far more vulnerable, as their brains are still developing and executive functions—including impulse control—are not well developed. As Ramsay Brown, neuroscientist and co-founder of the artificial intelligence/machine learning company Boundless Mind, says in a recent Time article, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone… Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

Techniques used by video game and social media companies often exploit children’s developmental vulnerabilities. For example, teens’ highly elevated desire for social acceptance and fear of social rejection is a well-known aspect of their psychological development. Rather than handling this limitation with caution, proponents of behavioral design see it as a gold mine. As psychologist B.J. Fogg, the father of persuasive design and creator of the Stanford University Behavioral Design Lab, says, “Today, with social technologies a reality, the methods for motivating people through social acceptance or social rejection have blossomed.”

Revealing another dark side of persuasive design, Bill Fulton, who trained in cognitive and quantitative psychology, says of video game makers, “If game designers are going to pull a person away from every other voluntary social activity or hobby or pastime, they’re going to have to engage that person at a very deep level in every possible way they can.” And that is a key reason why persuasive design is having such a negative impact on childhood, as digital products are built to be so seductive that they replace real-world activities—many of which kids need to grow up to be happy and successful.

Children’s time on screens and phones has increased exponentially in the past decade, with the typical U.S. teen now spending 6 hours, 40 minutes a day using screens for entertainment. Less advantaged children are even more immersed in screens: lower-income teens spend 8 hours, 7 minutes a day using screens for entertainment, compared to 5 hours, 42 minutes for their higher-income peers; and teens of high-school-educated parents spend 7 hours, 21 minutes each day with entertainment screens compared to 5 hours, 36 minutes for teens of parents with a college degree.

Persuasive Design’s Impact on Children’s Well-being

The technology industry’s use of behavioral psychologists and psychological manipulation tactics is contributing to high levels of stress in families and putting children’s well-being at risk. The American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) most recent Annual Stress in America study found that 48% of parents surveyed said that regulating their child’s screen-time is a “constant battle,” while 58% said their children spend too much time with their devices.

Even teenagers are admitting that screen-based technology is a problem. Fifty percent of U.S. teens report that they feel “addicted” to their devices. And hinting at compulsive or even addictive use, according to the Pew Research Center, over half of teens report that they have tried to cut back on their phone use. And, according to Pew, ninety percent of teens say that spending too much time online is a major problem for their generation.

Quality, peer-reviewed research is also demonstrating the serious negative effects of kids spending long periods of time with screens and phones. Psychologist Jean Twenge’s research reveals that the greater time teen girls spend on social media and smartphones the more likely they are to be depressed and have suicide-related behaviors. Kids’ wired lives are destructive because of their displacement of vital developmental activities, such as engaging with family, but also because screen immersion increases kids’ exposure to problem content, including cyberbullying and the fear of missing out (FOMO).

While girls are especially taken with social media, boys are more likely than girls to overuse video games, a problem associated with lower academic achievement. A recent National Bureau of Economic research study argued that the rise in recreational video game play may explain the decreased labor force participation of young males. Boys and young men are also more prone than their female counterparts to video game addiction, a diagnosis recently recognized by the World Health Organization, which is estimated to affect 8.5% of adolescent male gamers (compared to 4.5% of female adolescent gamers). Such addictions often lead to tragic outcomes for kids and their families.

What is the Psychology Profession Doing About Persuasive Design?

A surprising group has stepped forward to call attention to the harmful effects of persuasive design on children: technology executives. Tristan Harris, formerly a design ethicist at Google and now with the Center for Human Technology, says, “The job of these companies is to hook people, and they do that by hijacking our psychological vulnerabilities.” Likewise, Sean Parker, Facebook’s former president, says that Facebook exploits “vulnerability in human psychology” and remarked, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

While tech execs are speaking out about the industry’s use of psychological manipulation, the American Psychological Association (APA) has not yet made a statement about psychologists and other UX designers employing psychological techniques that encourage kids’ screen and phone overuse. This is in spite of the APA Ethics Code, which says that psychologists are to do no harm, not engage in subterfuge, and be extra cautious in the treatment of children because of their struggles with “autonomous decision making.”

Moreover, every psychological intervention requires informed consent, e.g., efforts to change behavior through treatment are explained so that consumers can make informed choices about their treatment. This is obviously not happening with persuasive design. No one is informing these children or their parents that the reason kids cannot get off their devices is because the technology is designed that way. The bottom line: Psychologists’ use of persuasive design to influence children and teens is unethical, is hurting a generation of kids and their families, and should be immediately addressed by the APA.

By taking action, the APA has the opportunity to not only address psychologists’ use of persuasive design but also uphold public confidence in the profession. Parents around the world are increasingly angered by their inability to control their children’s destructive overuse of social media, video games, and smartphones. As the spotlight increasingly turns on psychologists’ role in creating digital products that encourage overuse, public confidence in psychologists and the profession will be jeopardized.

How You Can Help Children Hurt by Persuasive Design

We believe the APA should act to ensure that psychologists are engaged in healing children, not manipulating them through persuasive design. In conjunction with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Children's Screen Time Action Network, we have written a letter to the APA asking that the organization take action on persuasive design.

We encourage the APA to call on psychologists and the tech industry to disclose their use of psychological persuasion, especially in digital products used by children. And we ask that the APA issue a formal public statement condemning psychologists’ role in designing persuasive technologies that increase children’s time spent on digital devices, as screen overuse poses risks to kids’ emotional well-being and academic success. Finally, the APA will benefit this generation of children by leading the charge to educate families about the negative effects of persuasive design and the potential for harm with device overuse.

Our letter to the APA gained national attention and has already been signed by many renowned psychologists and leaders in the field—including Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Douglas Gentile, Mary Pipher, Sherry Turkle, and Jean Twenge. We now believe it’s time for the APA to hear your voice—that of parents, educators, health care providers, and concerned citizens. Add your name to the effort calling on the APA to address psychological manipulation in tech products used by kids, which you can view and sign here. By taking action, you will encourage the APA to fulfill its duty to protect children and families. You will also send a clear message that psychologists and their powerful tools should be dedicated to advancing, not detracting from, children’s health and well-being.

Sources

Aguiar, M., Bils, M., Charles, K. K., & Hurst, E. (2017). Leisure luxuries and the labor supply of young men. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/maguiar/files/leisure-...

Fogg, B. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Persuasive Technology—Persuasive ‘09. Retrieved September 28, 2018, from https://www.mebook.se/images/page_file/38/Fogg%20Behavior%20Model.pdf  

Gentile, D. (2009). Pathological video-game use among youth ages 8 to 18. Psychological Science, 20(5), 594-602.

Sharif, I., & Sargent, J. D. (2006). Association between television, movie, and video game exposure and school performance. Pediatrics,118(4). 

Twenge, J.M, Joiner, T.E., Rogers, M.L., & Martin, G. N. (2017). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6, 3-17