Sunday Reading: Thoughts on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids

Reflecting on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children

Richard Freed is a child psychologist who focuses on helping families work through “extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media.”

Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.

Kids might be struggling with technology, but adults may also act like children if older folks had to go a day without technology. Maybe we should all take a digital detox.

Captology

BJ Fogg directs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There is tons of research and design practices used by today’s most popular apps, websites, and games, but we can still use this newfound power for good. Although, whether good or bad, the techniques are still shaping human behavior without consent.

Fogg’s website also has lately undergone a substantial makeover, as he now seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, commenting, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products & services that benefit everyday people around the world.” Likewise, the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website optimistically claims, “Persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

Why don’t we make it easy for kids and adults to spend their time doing the things society deems productive. Part of the challenge is exposing kids to new opportunities and experiences to help them understand their real world potential, even at their age.

While persuasion techniques work well on adults, they are particularly effective at influencing the still-maturing child and teen brain. “Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” says Fogg. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.” And it’s persuasive design that’s helped convince this generation of boys they are gaining “competency” by spending countless hours on game sites, when the sad reality is they are locked away in their rooms gaming, ignoring school, and not developing the real-world competencies that colleges and employers demand.

Motivation/inspiration, Ability/capability, Trigger/feedback

According to B.J. Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.” Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use. Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site. This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

It seems we should be able to reframe the three motivation, ability, and triggers behavioral factors into a more productive framing of inspiration, capability, and reinforcement. For example, a kid who enjoys watching YouTube creators may be inspired to make a channel of their own. YouTube, influencers, or another service, can help kids build their movie making capabilities. Feedback on work can help reinforce learning and growth. In the end, kids are still spending time where they want to, but the behavioral model focuses on a healthy balance of creation and consumption leading to development in modern day, “real world capabilities”.

Mostly terrifying

the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

Facebook Messenger Kids

How has the consumer tech industry responded to these calls for change? By going even lower. Facebook recently launched Messenger Kids, a social media app that will reach kids as young as five years old. Suggestive that harmful persuasive design is now honing in on very young children is the declaration of Messenger Kids Art Director, Shiu Pei Luu, “We want to help foster communication [on Facebook] and make that the most exciting thing you want to be doing.”

Facebook’s narrow-minded vision of childhood is reflective of how out of touch the social network and other consumer tech companies are with the needs of an increasingly troubled generation. The most “exciting thing” for young children should be spending time with family, playing outside, engaging in creative play, and other vital developmental experiences — not being drawn into the social media vortex on phones or tablets. Moreover, Facebook Messenger Kids is giving an early start to the wired life on social media that we know poses risks of depression and suicide-related behavior for older children.

In response to the release of Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent Facebook a letter signed by numerous health advocates calling on the company to pull the plug on the app. Facebook has yet to respond to the letter and instead continues to aggressively market Messenger Kids for young children.

Conscious workflows vs impulsive habits

President John F. Kennedy’s prescient guidance: He said that technology “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

From Cal Newport:

Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

Technology gives us the tools to do more. It’s up to us to decide how we leverage our new powers.

The best analogy I’ve ever heard is Scientific American, I think it was, did a study in the early 70s on the efficiency of locomotion, and what they did was for all different species of things in the planet, birds and cats and dogs and fish and goats and stuff, they measured how much energy does it take for a goat to get from here to there. Kilocalories per kilometer or something, I don’t know what they measured. And they ranked them, they published the list, and the Condor won. The Condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there. Man was didn’t do so well, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list.

But fortunately someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test a man with a bicycle, and man with a bicycle won. Twice as good as the Condor, all the way off the list. And what it showed was that man is a toolmaker, has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

Additional reading

BJ Fogg commented on the article and provided a list of his works to raise awareness about the ethics of persuasive tech.

A recent Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Dr. Jean Twenge

Stratechery article on Tech’s Two Philosophies: Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity; others by collective action

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