Advocates condemn psych techniques used to keep kids online

August 8, 2018 by Lindsey Tanner And Matt O'brien
Advocates condemn psych techniques used to keep kids online
In this Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 file photo, youths look at computer screens at an Internet cafe in Jakarta, Indonesia. The tech industry's use of persuasive psychological techniques to keep kids glued to their screens is under fire from a group of advocates who want the American Psychological Association to condemn the practice. The group will promote their cause at the APA's annual meeting Aug. 9-12 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Children's advocates want the American Psychological Association to condemn the tech industry's practice of using persuasive psychological techniques to keep kids glued to their screens.

The advocates, citing research that links excessive use of social media and video games with depression and academic troubles, say it's unethical for psychologists to be involved in tactics that risk harming kids' well-being. Skeptics say the research is inconclusive, and they note that psychologists have been involved in other industries' marketing and advertising for decades.

The group seeking intervention includes 60 U.S. psychologists, researchers, children's advocates and the Children's Screen Time Action Network, a project of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The network was publishing a letter Wednesday to the American Psychological Association, coinciding with the association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

"There are powerful psychology principles and technology that are being used against kids in ways that are not in their best interests," said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

That technology uses computers to help figure out what motivates people and influence their online behavior. It's built on age-old tenets of behavioral psychology that marketers and advertisers have long used to get people to buy their products. The difference is smartphones are ubiquitous and unlike human marketers, they don't get tired, said B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University who has been called the technology's pioneer.

Fogg said he has aimed to use persuasive tech to enhance people's lives. But he also said he has long warned that it has a "dark side," including potential loss of privacy and the potential for encouraging behavior that isn't in users' best interests.

The letter to the psychology association cites a recent study that found that teen girls who spend a lot of time on digital devices, including on social media, are at risk for depression and suicidal behaviors. That study couldn't show whether depressed girls might be more prone to using social media than other teens.

The letter also notes evidence that some teen boys overuse video games "at the expense of obtaining real-world competencies," including college educations and jobs.

"Families don't understand why their kids are so strongly attracted and pulled to these devices," said Richard Freed, a Walnut Creek, California, psychologist who signed the letter. He said the World Health Organization's decision in June to declare excessive video gaming an addiction shows that the problem is real.

Under Fogg's model, technology can change a person's behavior by tapping into hard-wired motivations, simplifying the activity and getting people to perform it with a "well-timed" trigger. That could mean an app prompting a person to go running or it could be an alert persuading someone to spend more time on social media based on their innate desire to win acceptance and avoid social rejection.

It's not just the big tech firms. BuzzFeed reported Tuesday, based on a confidential company memo, that founders of a startup recently acquired by Facebook boasted of using a "psychological trick"—custom profiles and mysterious calls to action—to get high schoolers to download a polling app. Facebook later shut down the app.

In job postings, big tech companies have sought psychologists and people with psychology training for research into user experiences. Microsoft's Xbox user research division is led by psychologists. Amazon looks for hires who "geek out over user research, psychology, ethnography." Google's preferred qualification for some positions includes a doctorate in experimental psychology.

"We strive to learn and understand our users' needs, behaviors, and emotions to yield insights that inform product strategy and guide the design of the experiences we create," says one Google job posting online this week.

Facebook and Google didn't return requests for comment Tuesday on whether they use psychological persuasion techniques to build digital products for children. Apple said Wednesday that it doesn't. Microsoft and Amazon declined to comment.

This year, those companies have promoted better digital well-being amid rising concerns about kids' digital distractions.

The Internet Association, an industry trade group, said its member companies endeavor to create safe and positive online experiences.

"This is an important conversation, and the internet industry remains committed to developing and sharing best practices, partnering and collaborating with experts, and developing resources and programs that will ensure positive online experiences," the association's Noah Theran said in the statement.

Apple is introducing new tools meant to make its iPhone less addictive after two major shareholders earlier this year called on the company to curb smartphone addiction among children. Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft have introduced similar tools.

The American Psychological Association has no policy on using psychological research to develop persuasive digital technology.

But in a statement responding to the advocates' letter, association CEO Arthur Evans Jr. said the group "is concerned about the increasing amount of time children are spending on digital devices."

He said the association is examining psychology's role in technology development, and that an association committee will discuss the letter and whether to recommend any action.

Explore further: Child experts: Just say 'no' to Facebook's kids app

Related Stories

Child experts: Just say 'no' to Facebook's kids app

January 30, 2018
Child development experts and advocates are urging Facebook to pull the plug on its new messaging app aimed at kids.

Could playing Fortnite lead to video game addiction? The World Health Organisation says yes, but others disagree

June 19, 2018
Could your child be addicted to playing video games? Maybe. If you're a parent looking for tips on moderating your child's gaming habits, read on.

UK calls on social media firms to better protect children

April 22, 2018
Britain's health secretary says the government will introduce new laws targeting online social media companies if they don't do more to protect children.

Digital media use linked to behavioral problems in kids

July 17, 2018
Are children who spend lots of time using digital devices prone to psychiatric problems? A team of USC scientists says yes in a new study that appears today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Apple investors urge action to curb child gadget addiction

January 8, 2018
Two major Apple investors have urged the iPhone maker to take action to curb growing smartphone addiction among children, highlighting growing concern about the effects of gadgets and social media on youngsters.

Facebook, Instagram to introduce time-management tools

August 1, 2018
Do you worry that you, or your children, spend too much time on social media? Facebook and Instagram on Wednesday said they want to help you take control.

Recommended for you

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Linguistic red flags from Facebook posts can predict future depression diagnoses

October 15, 2018
In any given year, depression affects more than 6 percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need. What if an algorithm could scan social ...

Early changes to synapse gene regulation may cause Alzheimer's disease

October 15, 2018
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, involving memory loss and a reduction in cognitive abilities. Patients with AD develop multiple abnormal protein structures in their brains that are thought to ...

Clues that suggest people are lying may be deceptive, study shows

October 12, 2018
The verbal and physical signs of lying are harder to detect than people believe, a study suggests.

Why don't we understand statistics? Fixed mindsets may be to blame

October 12, 2018
Unfavorable methods of teaching statistics in schools and universities may be to blame for people ignoring simple solutions to statistical problems, making them hard to solve. This can have serious consequences when applied ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.