What are the long term impacts of cell phone use on children? And are youth more susceptible to tendencies for tech addiction than adults? While we may not have definitive answers to these questions, researchers have revealed important findings connecting screen time to children’s developmental outcomes, and journalists are now also beginning to pay attention to how technology can be engineered to be addictive.
The segment below highlights a 60 Minutes episode aired on April 9th, 2017 with Anderson Cooper interviewing software developers and university researchers about the ways that many of our tech devices are engineered to maximize addiction.
“Smartphones are becoming a habit with many people and it’s all by design says a former Google product manager, Tristan Harris. He tells Anderson Cooper the apps and content — especially social media — carried on phones are purposely designed to be habit-forming. Cooper’s story also explores the brain science that explains how people are so susceptible to what some programmers call “brain hacking.”
Harris compares smartphones to “slot machines” because, he says, “Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’” He is referring to “likes” on Facebook and Instagram, cute emojis in text messages and more followers on Twitter — powerful reinforcement for staying on your phone. It’s a flood of gratifying information that keeps coming via the so-easy-to-use scrolling method on digital devices — another way to keep us engaged.
“There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible,” Harris tells Cooper. Kids are often the biggest users.
In one example, Harris says Snapchat, the messaging service popular with teens, has a streak feature that lets the teens know how many days in a row they have swapped messages with a friend. “Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak,” Harris says kids often think. “But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf.”
Harris says this is an example of the smartphone and its content designers programming people. “Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people…There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true,” says Harris.
The strategy of engaging the user for as long a period of time as possible is just good business, even if it can have a bad effect on people. “They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money,” Harris tells Cooper.”
To view the segment, please click on the image above or the link below:
See also The Economist’s feature highlighting a similar theme:
The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive__________________________________
For additional research and updates on the impacts of screen time and wireless exposure on children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and neurological development, please see Screen Time, Wireless, and EMF Research and the following posts:
Children Sign Over Digital Rights ‘Regularly and Unknowingly’ // The Guardian
Clinical, Neurological, and Behavioral Effects of Screens // Dr. Nicholas Kardaras
Autism and Screen Time: Special Brains, Special Risks // Dr. Victoria Dunckley
Dose–Response Association of Screen Time-Based Sedentary Behavior in Children and Adolescents and Depression: A Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies // British Journal of Sports Medicine
Mobile Phone Dependency and Its Impacts on Adolescents’ Social and Academic Behaviors // Computers in Human Behavior
Death By Design: The Dirty Secret of Our Digital Addiction // Award Winning Documentary on Environmental and Health impacts of the Electronics Industry
Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis // JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association
Captured Agency: How the FCC is Dominated by the Industries it Presumably Regulates // Center For Ethics at Harvard University
Roxana Marachi is an Associate Professor of Education at San José State University. The views provided are those of the author and not necessarily the official position of the Lurie College of Education or San José State University.