Assistant Teaching Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services, Penn State
Nearly three-quarters of parents are concerned that their kids’ use of mobile devices may be harmful to them or to family relationships – and that was from research done before the pandemic.
But it’s not parents’ – or the kids’ – fault. Every time a parent and child try to turn off a game or put a device down, they’re not fighting each other – they’re fighting the invisible army of behavioral design specialists who make technology experiences so hard to tear yourself away from.
The people who create apps and games use insights from, and experts in, an area of psychology research called “persuasive design,” whose scholars seek to understand how to create something that is next to impossible to put down.
But it’s important to be careful when seeking to hook kids on something, as psychologist Richard Freed and I explain in our analysis of the ethical issues involved in persuasive design for children and adolescents.
A quick primer
Simply put, persuasive design combines behavioral psychology with technology to alter human behavior. It is the answer to the perennial question, “Why are kids so glued to devices?”
The most basic summary is that there are three key mechanisms that together can change a person’s behavior: create high motivation, demand little effort and frequently cue users to engage.
Knowledge of these principles can have productive and useful purposes, like encouraging people to walk more or eat more fruits and vegetables. However, one common use of persuasive design is to increase the amount of time a person spends using a particular app or game. That boosts the number of ads the person will see and the possibility the person might buy something in the game, which both increase the revenue to the app designer.
Adults are influenced by persuasive design, too. It’s why they binge-watch streaming shows, endlessly scroll social media and habitually play video games.
But since children’s brains are so malleable, kids are uniquely susceptible to persuasive design strategies. Many parents have observed kids’ exceptional excitement at receiving stickers and tokens, whether physical or digital. This is because the ventral striatum, the brain’s pleasure center, is more responsive to dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical, in children’s brains than in the brains of adults.
This excitement leads them to want to repeat the behavior to experience the neurological rewards over and over.
In 2019 survey research on adolescent screen time, three types of heavy users emerged from the data, all of which are influenced by persuasive design: social media users, video gamers and video viewers.
How it works
Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat are engineered to maximize the results of persuasive design. Using “like” buttons and heart emojis, those sites provide social signals, like acceptance and approval, which teens are highly motivated to seek. The act of scrolling through the sites requires very little effort. And the apps trigger regular reengagement through continual notifications and prompts.
Snapchat, for instance, urges users to send snaps at least every 24 hours to keep their Snapstreak alive. To avoid the stress of missing out on reactions or updates from their friends, kids check social media increasingly frequently.
In video games, Fortnite lets players know how close they are to beating an opponent. This triggers the “near miss” phenomenon, encouraging people to keep playing because they were so close, they might win next time. This is just one of the ways persuasive design has been adapted from gambling systems for adults into digital video games aimed at kids.
As a scholar of psychology, I am concerned that psychologists are helping technology designers use the principles of psychology to manipulate children and adolescents into increasing their use of a particular app, game or website.
At the same time, other psychologists are researching the harms of these activities, including anxiety, depression, attention issues and obesity.
Still other psychologists have opened treatment centers to treat internet gaming disorder and other mental health issues associated with excessive and problematic use, like anxiety and depression.
In my view, the principles of one field should not both create and provide treatment for a problem. The American Psychological Association, the largest professional association for psychologists in America, has an ethics code requiring psychologists to do no harm, object to work that does not benefit people’s well-being and take special care when dealing with young people because they are not yet fully mature.
As such, I believe psychologists have an obligation to protect children from the influences of persuasive technology. Researchers who help social media sites and games may think they are just trying to help the companies make the most dynamic and engaging products possible. But the reality is they are turning a blind eye to the many psychological harms that research has shown these products cause.
Parents and children are rightfully concerned about the degree to which games, videos and social media are engineered to exploit kids’ impressionable minds. Psychologists could make an effort to explain to parents and kids how children’s brains develop, and how persuasive design exploits that process. This can help families stop arguing with each other about spending too much time with their devices and recognize that the bigger threat is not the devices themselves but rather the companies that design these devices and apps to be so difficult to turn off.