Corporations in gaming and social media are exploiting psychology to create feedback loops, which is causing an epidemic of more isolation, rise in mental health problems, and more dependency on tech for our needs. They want people complacent, sick, and spending money for easier control.
A group of psychologists say kids are suffering from “hidden manipulation techniques” that companies like Facebook and Twitter use.
As much as adults are now constantly inundated with technology — those constant Facebook notifications and that next episode on Netflix already cued up — children today are even more primed to become hooked on their devices. Kids have 10 times the amount of screen time they did in 2011, and spend an average of six hours and 40 minutes using technology, according to Common Sense Media.
Behind the screens of the games we play and digital communities we interact with are psychologists and other behavioral science experts, who are hired to create products that we want to use more and more. Big tech now employs mental health experts to use persuasive technology, a new field of research that looks at how computers can change the way humans think and act. This technique, also known as persuasive design, is built into thousands of games and apps, and companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft rely on it to encourage specific human behavior starting from a very young age.
While defenders of persuasive tech will say it can have positive effects, like training people to take medicine on time or develop weight loss habits, some health professionals believe children’s behaviors are being exploited in the name of the tech world’s profit. On Wednesday, a letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques” and asks the APA to take an ethical stand on behalf of kids.
Richard Freed, a child and adolescent psychologist and the author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, is one of the authors of the letter, which was sent on behalf of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. I spoke to Freed about how tech companies are able to manipulate human behavior and why he believes psychology is being used as “a weapon against children.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did the field of persuasive technology come from?
The founding father of this research is B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University [where there’s a lab dedicated to this field]. Fogg has been called the “millionaire maker,” and he developed an entire field of study based off research that proved that with some simple techniques, tech can manipulate human behavior. His research is now the blueprint for tech companies who are developing products to keep consumers plugged in.
How did his research become so popular in the tech world?
Fogg spent half his time educating [at Stanford] and [the other half] consulting with the industry. He taught classes on the concept, and people that attended such classes include Mike Krieger, who went on to co-found Instagram. [Fogg is] a guru in Silicon Valley, where tech companies follow his every word. Over time, tech companies have tested his research and iterated it, and then designed their machines and smartphones and games around it. Now it is remarkably effective, and the model is giving the tech industry what it wants: to keep you on and not let you go.
How does persuasive design work?
It’s actually quite simple, although studied at length, it is sophisticated. The formula is that in order to have behavioral change, you need motivation, ability, and triggers. In the case of social media, the motivation is people’s cravings for social connection; it can also be the fear of social rejection. For video games, it’s the desire to gain skills and accomplishments. Ability basically means making sure that the product is remarkably easy to use.
Finally, you add triggers, which keeps people coming back. So those videos you can’t look away from, the rewards you get inside an app when you use it longer, or the hidden treasure boxes in games once you reach a certain level — these are all triggers, put there as part of the persuasive design.
I can see how the “trigger” technique is used at Snapchat, where users get badges when they’re on the app more. Can you give me some other examples of how tech companies use it?
All social media companies are built with it. When you sign on to Twitter, sometimes it won’t give you notifications right away. You might get it in a few seconds. Twitter doesn’t want to give it to you on purpose, because they’ve instead developed a formula for you that will keep you on the site. Facebook will also save up notifications and give them to you on a schedule that they believe will most likely stimulate you to get you back. The iPhone and Apple [are guilty too] because I think of the iPhone as a conduit where kids access the persuasion tech of social media and video games, and it’s more dangerous for them.
Why is persuasive design more dangerous for children than adults?
Adults get affected by not working [at their jobs] properly and are getting more distracted. But kids are being robbed. The type of manipulation and isolation persuasive technology creates pulls kids away from real-life engagements like family, focusing on school, making friends. There are adolescent [cornerstones], and children are being pulled away from the lives they need.
As a population, kids are also more vulnerable [to the techniques]. Teenagers are sensitive to social situations, like being accepted or rejected, and social media is built to prey on these insecurities.
What does this look like in real life for children?
Everyone is attached to their screens, but specific problems vary by gender. Video games are more addictive for boys. Boys have a developmental drive to gain abilities and accomplishments, and so video games are created to give them rewards, coins, cash boxes. These are built to make them feel like they are mastering something; it creates bad [gaming] habits and statistically poor academic performance.
Girls, on the other hand, are more inclined to fall prey to social media, and there are serious effects on mental health struggles, since social media can be hurtful for young girls, and there’s been an increase in suicide.
Haven’t medical professionals always had a problem with video games?
Yes, but now companies are making sure persuasive design is built in. And we’re talking about companies with infinite resources hiring psychologists and other UX designers who are the best and the brightest and use experimental methods tested over and over until they’ve obtained products that don’t let users go.
Is it public knowledge that psychologists are helping big tech?
I don’t think the general public is aware of it. I have so many parents who say they’ve lost kids’ [attention] to social media, but they have never heard of Dr. Fogg, and they definitely haven’t heard of persuasive design. But you can go onto LinkedIn and find psychologists working for Facebook, Instagram, and tons of gaming companies. There are so many psychologists doing persuasive design at Microsoft’s Xbox — just look at their team list.
Not every tech company has them on staff; some companies hire them as outside consultants, and not everyone has a PhD or is a psychologist. Some experts are called UX researchers and have a different certification, but a lot of them are psychologists.
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