Last month, Richard Freed, child and adolescent psychologist, published an eye opening and damning article on the unfettered use of psychological research and understanding in modern technology.
While Freed was mostly concerned with the stance the APA (American Psychological Association) needs to be taking in response to the use of child psychology for ends other than those of helping people, he offers a lot for those of us simply concerned about kids.
The basic premise is simple – that the use of psychology by big tech companies (device manufacturers, social media, internet companies, game and app developers are all included) has not been given the level of scrutiny it deserves. Tech developers have been learning about how we are motivated, how behaviors are triggered and how we respond to rewards, to manipulate user behavior beyond the tipping point from choice to compulsion. The use of these understandings in technological design is called persuasive technology, or behavior design. These names say it all. The game is rigged, against all of us users, and in the case of child users, rigged against their parents.
We believe that behavioral addictions are as real as substance addictions, and tech developers are using these addictive qualities – much as tobacco companies use nicotine – to “hook” users to their products. They have made it easier to keep using their product than to stop – look at the way Netflix cues up the next episode of a show if you aren’t convinced. A similar combination of cliffhangers and digital hooks is something our campers are familiar with - the FOMO effect (fear of missing out). It is likely that most of our campers, and indeed us adults, are familiar with how that fear has been coded into their smartphone or favorite social media app.
Unlike tobacco, the long-term effects of these “machines designed to change humans” are unknown. If history is any guide, we can guess that many of these effects will be toxic. Persuasive technologies have been designed to outcompete real world experiences - real world experiences like meals with family and friends, reading physical books, playing outdoors with friends, even the basic acts of sleep, daydreaming and chatting with friends – in meeting basic needs, yet fail to teach the skills that the offline experiences build. We are totally in the dark when it comes to understanding what the collective and individual impacts of having generations grow up deficient in the deep attentional, creative, social/emotional connective, good sleep/exercise, motor and other skill sets that are developed from outdoor play, dinner time conversations, walks in the woods are reading books.
With tech companies targeting younger and younger kids – FB Messenger Kids, Apple iPads in K and 1st Grade classrooms, Amazon Echo’s designed just for kids age under 12 – we need to start asking more questions, more often, and more loudly. First and foremost of those questions – who does this technology benefit? It is apparent that the answer is not kids. Shareholders and tech company founders clearly benefit when school districts adopt iPads in all classrooms from kindergarten on up. But where is the evidence that this tech benefits kids MORE than the alternative? Because as far as I am aware, there are no potentially toxic behavioral addictive qualities posed by textbooks and worksheets. It is not simply enough to say that tech is a like for like replacement. These same questions need to be asked across domains, not just schools.
The benefits must outweigh the risks, but until we (parents, child development professionals, concerned citizens) ask the questions, tech companies will not be forthcoming with what they know. I suspect that they know very well what impact their products have on kids, but would prefer we don’t. We also need to speak about our concerns, to let others know they are not alone in struggling to manage the role of technology in our families lives. And we need to pro-actively seek out the experiences we know can help undo the damage, for our kids and ourselves.
Please note – this is a topic I am pretty passionate about as a parent, and camp director. I feel it is important to have frank and open conversations about areas of concern for modern teenagers and welcome any and all conversations. - Matt (aka Pinesy)