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20 December 2018

It's Time for the American Psychological Association (APA) to Speak Out on Persuasive Design

It's time for the APA to speak out on persuasive design.

Please sign the letter to the American Psychological Association (APA)

Over 50% of parents report that regulating their children’s use of digital devices is a “constant battle.” But kids’ struggle to unplug isn’t a failure on their part: tech companies manipulate children to keep them on their devices.

Psychologists working with tech companies use sophisticated techniques aimed at changing behavior — called persuasive design — that make it difficult for users to put their devices down. Because children are more vulnerable than adults, persuasive design contributes to the compulsive use of smartphones and other devices by young people, increasing their risk for emotional and academic problems.

More than 200 psychologists concerned about persuasive design, including leaders in the field like Drs. Mary Pipher, Jean Twenge, and Sherry Turkle, have sent a letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) asking it to take a stand on the issue.

Now, the APA needs to hear your voice. Please join us in calling on APA President Jessica Henderson-Daniel to take action!

Our letter to the APA

Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, ABPP
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

August 8, 2018

Dear Dr. Daniel,

We are writing to the American Psychological Association (APA) to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games. These techniques—employed without children’s or their parents’ knowledge or consent—increase kids’ overuse of digital devices, resulting in risks to their health and well-being. In recent months, leading tech executives have spoken out against these practices, focusing their concern on the exploitation of human psychological vulnerabilities for profit. However, the APA, which is tasked with protecting children and families from harmful psychological practices, has not yet made a statement on the matter.

In this letter, we describe how psychologists and other user experience (UX) researchers working for the consumer tech industry utilize persuasive technology (also called persuasive design or behavior design) to increase children’s use of social media and video games, how this fosters children’s overuse of screens, and how research demonstrates a connection between children’s screen overuse and two problems afflicting this generation of kids: mental health struggles and poor academic performance. The letter will conclude with a call to APA leadership to take strong actions that protect children and families from psychologists’ development of persuasive technologies that pose risks to children’s health and welfare.

We acknowledge that psychologists can and do work to make screen media products that are developmentally appropriate and even help advance academic and socio-emotional skills of children. This letter is primarily concerned with the use of persuasive design practices that encourage children’s excessive use of social media, video games, and smartphones for entertainment.

Persuasive technology is the design of digital devices and apps to influence human thoughts and behavior. While these techniques are used for positive purposes (e.g., more efficient website navigation), they are also employed with the guidance of psychologists and other behavior experts working in the tech industry to persuade users, many of whom are children, to spend long periods of time using social media and video game sites. As Ramsay Brown, neuroscientist and co-founder of the artificial intelligence/machine learning company Boundless Mind, says in a recent Time article, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone… Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”

One significant concern about psychologists’ role in the development of persuasive design for social media and video game products is that such design capitalizes on children’s developmental vulnerabilities. For example, the desire for social acceptance and the fear of social rejection are exploited by psychologists and other behavior change experts to pull users into social media sites and keep them there for long periods of time. Yet, as psychologists are well aware, children—especially preteens and teens—have particular developmental sensitivities to being socially accepted or rejected.

Likewise, psychologists working for the video game industry take advantage of the inherent developmental drive in preteen and teen boys to gain competencies, or abilities that have helped them throughout history become evolutionarily successful. Psychologists and other UX researchers create video games with powerful rewards doled out on intermittent schedules that convince kids, especially adolescent boys, that they are mastering important competencies through game play. This is contributing to a generation of boys and young men who are overusing video games at the expense of obtaining real-world competencies, including a college education or job.

Another concern about psychologists’ role in developing persuasive technologies is that this contributes to health risks associated with kids’ overuse of digital devices. The typical U.S. teen now spends 6 hours, 40 minutes a day using screens for entertainment. Less advantaged kids are even more immersed in screens, as lower-income teens spend 8 hours, 7 minutes a day using screens for entertainment, compared to 5 hours, 42 minutes for their higher-income peers, and black teens spend 8 hours, 26 minutes compared to 6 hours, 18 minutes for white teenagers.

Unfortunately, the heavy screen- and phone-based lives of this generation of children are putting their emotional well-being and academic success at risk. Recent research shows that teen girls who spend more time using social media or smartphones and other devices are at greater risk for depression and suicide-related behaviors compared with teen girls who spend less.

Similarly, since boys game more than girls, and gaming is associated with lower academic performance, it’s no surprise to see this generation of boys struggling to make it to college: 56% of college admissions are granted to young women compared with only 44% to young men. Moreover, as boys transition to adulthood, they can’t shake their gaming habits. Economists working with the National Bureau of Economic Research recently demonstrated how many young U.S. young men are choosing to play video games rather than join the workforce.

The profound amount of time kids spend using digital devices for entertainment is also putting tremendous stress on families. A recent APA poll found that almost half of
parents “say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle,” and more than half of parents “report feeling like their child is attached to their phone or tablet.”

Leading tech executives are speaking out against the use of persuasive design in children’s digital products. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, saidof consumer tech businesses, “The job of these companies is to hook people, and they do that by hijacking our psychological vulnerabilities.” Sean Parker, former Facebook president, stated that social media companies exploit “vulnerability in human psychology” and remarked, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And Marc Benioff, CEO of the cloud computing company Salesforce, said of social media that “product designers are working to make those products more addictive” and that such technologies are not “understood by parents,” which gives social media firms an “unfair advantage.”

In contrast, the APA has not yet addressed how psychologists and their behavior change tools are used by the tech industry to manipulate children for profit. This is in opposition to APA Ethical Principles and Standards, including the essential tenet to “take care to do no harm.”

Altering children’s behavior without their own or their parents’ consent also runs counter to the APA Ethical Principle of Integrity, which states, “Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness” in the science and practice of psychology and do not engage in “subterfuge.” The great majority of parents have no idea that the social media and video games used by children are developed by psychologists and other experts who use advanced behavior change techniques to pull kids into these platforms and keep them there as long as possible. Moreover, such ethical transgressions are amplified because it’s children who are being influenced. The APA’s Ethics Code provides special protection to kids because their developmental “vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making.”

The APA states that its primary vision is “to excel as a valuable, effective and influential organization advancing psychology as a science.” This vision can only be achieved if psychology is viewed as a positive rather than exploitive practice. We therefore recommend that the APA take these actions:

  • Call on psychologists and the tech industry to disclose their use of psychological persuasion techniques, especially those in digital products used by children.
  • Issue a formal public statement condemning psychologists’ role in designing persuasive technologies that increase children's time spent on digital devices, as kids’ screen overuse poses risks to their emotional wellbeing and academic success
  • Take strong actions to educate parents, schools, and child advocates about the use of psychological persuasion in social media and video games; and inform the public of the harms of children’s overuse of screens.

Through these actions, the APA can fulfill its duty to protect children and families, while also sending a clear message that psychologists and their powerful tools are devoted to advancing, not detracting from, children’s health and well-being.


[View list of signatories in original article.]


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