Even before the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of parents were concerned about their children’s cell phone use and the harmful effects these devices are having on them and their family relationships. But if kids can’t let go of these devices, it’s not really their fault or their parents’. Whenever a parent tries to persuade their child to quit an online game or put their device away, it’s not so much the parent they’re up against, but the invisible army of behaviors that make new technology so addictive.
App and game developers rely on the knowledge of experts in persuasive design, a field of psychology study whose goal is to understand how to create technologies that are indispensable.
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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 into three key mechanisms that, taken together, can cause someone to change their behavior: generate a strong motivation, require little effort, and often stimulate the user to practice the activity 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 entice them to spend more time on an app or game and generate additional revenue for the app creator.
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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. The extreme excitement of children when they receive 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 in both children and adults to dopamine, the molecule of satisfaction, reacted.
This excitement causes children to repeat their behavior in order to experience that satisfaction over and over again. A 2019 survey of teen screen time identified three types of heavy users, all influenced by compelling design: social media users, video game enthusiasts, and those who stream online content.
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. Scrolling through the pages of these sites requires 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”). Afraid of missing reactions or updates from their friends, teenagers are increasingly connecting to social media.
When it comes to video games, Fortnite lets players know they are about to beat an opponent. This activates a cognitive phenomenon called “near miss,” which encourages them to continue the game because they were so close to winning that they have a chance of winning next time. This is just one example of how compelling design has shifted from adult gaming systems to digital video games for kids and teens.
As a psychology researcher, my concern is that psychologists will help technology designers apply psychological principles that will lead children and young people to spend more time on an app, 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 addiction and other mental disorders associated with excessive and problematic use of new technologies, such as anxiety and depression.
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In my view, the principles of a research field should not both generate 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 work that harms the well-being of people and reminds them to be extra vigilant in their interactions with young people who have not yet reached full maturity.
I therefore believe that psychologists have an obligation to protect children from the influence of persuasive technology. Researchers who work with social media and game developers might think they’re just helping these companies create dynamic and engaging products. But they hide their face regarding the many psychological risks associated with using such products.
Parents and their children are rightly concerned about how games, videos and social media manipulate young minds. Psychologists might take the trouble to explain to them how their brains develop and how persuasive design uses this process. It would help families stop arguing about screen time and realize that the biggest threat isn’t from electronic devices themselves, but from the companies that build those devices and apps to hook us.
Translated from English by Iris Le Guinio for Fast ForWord