Politics Foreign Affairs Culture We're Hiring

Tech Hates Your Kids

'Persuasive technology' and the hacking of your children's brains

I am a total axe-grinder about the way parents — even Christian parents who are otherwise vigilant about their kids’ engagement with pop culture — roll over for technology, and hand their children over to it. This essay from Medium — “The Tech Industry’s War On Kids,” by developmental psychologist Richard Freed — ought to be read by every parent in this country. It’s about how the tech industry is using psychology to break down the personalities of children, and shape them to get them hooked. Here are some excerpts:

As Kelly and her family continued their appointments with me in the coming months, two concerns dominated our meetings. The first was that Kelly’s unhealthy attachment to her phone continued, causing almost constant tension at home. The second concern emerged during my meetings with Kelly’s parents alone. Even though they were loving and involved parents, Kelly’s mom couldn’t help feeling that they’d failed their daughter and must have done something terribly wrong that led to her problems.

My practice as a child and adolescent psychologist is filled with families like Kelly’s. These parents say their kids’ extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media is the most difficult parenting issue they face — and, in many cases, is tearing the family apart. 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.

What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

These parents have no idea that lurking behind their kids’ screens and phones are a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that capture kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. What these parents and most of the world have yet to grasp is that psychology — a discipline that we associate with healing — is now being used as a weapon against children.

Freed doesn’t launch a generalized attack on the tech industry. He gets very specific, starting here:

Nestled in an unremarkable building on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, is the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, founded in 1998. The lab’s creator, Dr. B.J. Fogg, is a psychologist and the father of persuasive technology, a discipline in which digital machines and apps — including smartphones, social media, and video games — are configured to alter human thoughts and behaviors. As the lab’s website boldly proclaims: “Machines designed to change humans.”

Fogg speaks openly of the ability to use smartphones and other digital devices to change our ideas and actions: “We can now create machines that can change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously.” Called “the millionaire maker,” Fogg has groomed former students who have used his methods to develop technologies that now consume kids’ lives. As he recently touted on his personal website, “My students often do groundbreaking projects, and they continue having impact in the real world after they leave Stanford… For example, Instagram has influenced the behavior of over 800 million people. The co-founder was a student of mine.”

“Persuasive technology” is an anodyne term for technology that compels you to think in a certain way without realizing that you’re being manipulated. This is not dystopian science fiction. This is actually happening:

Persuasive technology (also called persuasive design) works by deliberately creating digital environments that users feel fulfill their basic human drives — to be social or obtain goals — better than real-world alternatives. Kids spend countless hours in social media and video game environments in pursuit of likes, “friends,” game points, and levels — because it’s stimulating, they believe that this makes them happy and successful, and they find it easier than doing the difficult but developmentally important activities of childhood.

Freed says persuasive technology works well on adults, but it is especially effective on the brains of kids, which are still developing. For adolescent and teen girls, creating a compulsion to use social media is the main thing; for boys, it’s typically video gaming.

Look at this:

While social media and video game companies have been surprisingly successful at hiding their use of persuasive design from the public, one breakthrough occurred in 2017 when Facebook documents were leaked to The Australian. The internal report crafted by Facebook executives showed the social network boasting to advertisers that by monitoring posts, interactions, and photos in real time, the network is able to track when teens feel “insecure,” “worthless,” “stressed,” “useless” and a “failure.” Why would the social network do this? The report also bragged about Facebook’s ability to micro-target ads down to “moments when young people need a confidence boost.”

Persuasive technology’s use of digital media to target children, deploying the weapon of psychological manipulation at just the right moment, is what makes it so powerful. These design techniques provide tech corporations a window into kids’ hearts and minds to measure their particular vulnerabilities, which can then be used to control their behavior as consumers. This isn’t some strange future… this is now. Facebook claimed the leaked report was misrepresented in the press. But when child advocates called on the social network to release it, the company refused to do so, preferring to keep the techniques it uses to influence kids shrouded in secrecy.

Read the whole thing — and pass it on.

In my family, we are pretty strict with our kids regarding technology, but it’s a constant struggle, especially with FOMO — fear of missing out. The thing is, they really are missing out, because most of their friends do most of their socializing (“socializing”) online. But for us parents, what is the alternative? Turn our kids over to this monster?

Note well: technology is not neutral. If you think that your kids are fine because as far as you know, they’re not using the technology to look at porn or anything like that — you’re very wrong. The Freed piece explains why.

And to be honest, reading it made me decide to start disciplining myself more. I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s insane that I cannot stop at a red light in traffic without pulling the phone out to check e-mail or Twitter. Can’t be still with my own thoughts. That’s crazy.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now