Whenever a parent tries to convince their child to drop their smartphone, they have less to do with the invisible army of designers of these addictive technologies… explanations.
Before the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of parents were concerned about their children’s use of cell phones and the negative impact these devices would have on them and their family relationships. But when kids don’t share these devices, it really isn’t their fault or their parents’. Whenever a parent tries to persuade the child to quit an online game or put down their camera, it is not much for them to be confronted with the behavior of the invisible army of specialists who are so addicted to new technologies do.
App and game developers rely on the knowledge of experts in persuasive design, a field of psychology study aimed at understanding how to create technologies that are almost impossible to live without.
However, caution must be exercised when targeting children, as psychologist Richard Freed and I explain in our analysis of the ethical issues raised by persuasive design for children and adolescents.
Put simply, we can say that persuasive design combines behavioral psychology and technology to change our behavior. It is possible to summarize the principles in three key mechanisms that, combined, can push someone to change their behavior: creating a strong motivation requires little effort and often inciting the user to do the job in question.
These principles can be used for productive and useful purposes such as: B. to encourage people to walk more or eat more fruits and vegetables. However, compelling design is often used to get them to spend more time on an app or game.
Even adults can be influenced by convincing design. That’s why they spend hours streaming series, browsing their social media feeds, and playing video games.
However, because of the plasticity of their brains, children are particularly vulnerable to persuasive design strategies. Children’s extreme excitement when receiving stickers or gifts – real or virtual – can be explained by the fact that the ventral striatum, the pleasure center in the brain, is more responsive to the satisfaction molecule dopamine in children than in adults.
This excitement causes children to repeat their behavior, experiencing that satisfaction again and again. In a 2019 survey of teenage screen time, three types of heavy users emerged, all influenced by compelling design. Social media users, video game enthusiasts, and those who watch streaming content online.
Social signals of acceptance
Social networks like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat are designed to maximize the results of compelling designs. By offering like buttons and heart-shaped emoticons, these sites allow for social signals of acceptance and approval, which is very motivating for teens. Flipping through the pages of these sites require minimal effort. After all, apps regularly grab users’ attention by bombarding them with notifications and prompts.
Snapchat, for example, encourages its users to send “snaps” at least once every 24 hours to stay in Snapstreak mode (“It’s getting hot”). For fear of missing reactions or updates from their friends, young people are increasingly logging on to social networks.
For video games, Fortnite informed players that they were about to hit an opponent. This activates a cognitive phenomenon called “near miss” (“just missed”), which encourages them to continue the game because they were so close to winning that next time they are likely to win. This is an example of other ways that compelling design is moving beyond adult gaming systems to digital video games for children and young people.
As a psychologist, I am concerned that psychologists help technology developers to apply psychological principles that encourage children and young people to spend more time on an application, internet game, or website.
At the same time, other psychologists are exploring the dangers of these activities, including anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, and obesity. Still others have opened therapy centers to treat video game addictions and other mental disorders associated with excessive and problematic use of new technologies, such as anxiety and depression.
In my view, the principles of a research field should not both create a problem and work to solve it. The American Psychological Association, the largest professional association of psychologists in the United States, has a code of ethics that prohibits its members from harming or accepting any work that is injurious to the well-being of people, and reminds them to be especially vigilant in their interactions with young people who have not yet reached full maturity.
So I think psychologists have an obligation to protect children from the influence of persuasive technology. Researchers working with social networking and game designers think they can only help these companies to create dynamic and attractive products. But they cover their faces in view of the many psychological risks arising from the use of such products.
Parents and their children are rightly concerned about how games, videos and social media manipulate young minds. Psychologists might bother to explain how their brain develops them and how persuasive design uses this process. This would help families stop arguing about screen time and realize that the biggest threat isn’t from the electronic devices themselves, but from the companies that make those devices, and so these apps make us dependent.
The original version of this article was published in The conversation.