Friday, 16 Nov 2018

The sneaky science behind your child's technological obsession

(iStock) (GOLFX / IStock)

His son will not turn off his video game? Girl obsessed with the "I like" on Instagram? It may not be entirely their fault. Like high-octane sugar in a pint of ice cream and irresistible salt in their favorite snack, the ingredients of social media, video games, apps and other digital products are carefully designed to make you go back longer . While researchers are still trying to find out if children (and parents) can be technology dependent, some computer scientists reveal their secrets to keep us hooked.

Resist the urge to check your phone or be able to shut down Netflix after another episode of "strange phenomena" should be a simple matter of self-control. But according to so-called whistleblowers such as Tristan Harris, a computer scientist who founded the Time Well Spent movement, and Adam Alter, author of "Irresistible: The Emergence of Addictive Technology and Keeping Us Hung," humans are totally overwhelmed. Features such as app notifications, auto-play – even "likes" and messages that self-destruct – are scientifically proven to compel us to watch / record / respond now or we feel we are missing something really important.

Behind applications, games and social media is a team of people whose job is to make these products essential. Most of the techniques used are those described by experts in human behavior, including Nir Eyal, author of "Hooked: How to Build Habitual Products, "and BJ Fogg of Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. Harris argues that these methods "hijack" our own judgment. Most teenagers care deeply about peer validation, for example. So it makes sense that your friends' comments on social media, whether they are positive or negative, will keep you going until you've satisfied your curiosity. You have a phone in your pocket, so why not check now? And now. And now?

More and more industry insiders – including some who have designed these attention-claiming features – are crying foul about digital manipulation and even suggesting ways in which businesses can limit it. In fact, it's not just people who go in public. In 2017, an internal memo disclosed to Facebook showed how the social network can identify teens who feel "insecure," "worthless," and "need a boost of confidence." This is not a problem that "I like" can solve.

Until recently, big tech companies defended only their products. Facebook, for example, queries users daily to evaluate the success of its features. But as growing concerns prompted two Apple shareholders to ask the company to design solutions for potentially addictive technologies, Apple said yes. Shareholders also called for more research on the impact of using technology on younger users. Such studies could help developers create what Harris calls "ethically designed" products with built-in features that encourage us to let technology rest.

There is a way to fight now. With people using these methods, you can identify specific tips and think about how they affect your thoughts and behavior. Do not forget: the other party wants to reduce the time between your thoughts and actions. This break will help you resist your desires. Below are some of the key features designed to keep you in control, as well as ideas on how you and your kids can resist temptation.

Auto play. Especially on Netflix and Facebook, Autoplay is the feature that allows videos to continue to play even after they're aired. Harris calls this the "bottomless bowl" phenomenon. With a filling bowl, people consume 73% more calories. Or they binge-watch way too many movies.

What to do. Autoplay is usually enabled by default, so you must disable it. The feature is usually found in the account settings of the application. Here's how to turn it off in Netflix.

Notifications. Studies show that push notifications – those little pings and tricks you get to check your apps – create a habit. They align an external trigger (the ping) on ​​an internal trigger (feeling of boredom, uncertainty, insecurity, etc.). All apps use them, but some, such as and YouTube, have discovered that when notifications tell us to do something, like "Watch Sally's new video!" Or "See who liked your message! We answer immediately. These calls to action not only interrupt us, they cause stress.

What to do. Turn them off. Most devices have a settings section where you can disable notifications. You should also be able to disable notifications in the application settings.

Snapstreaks from Snapchat. A sequence of invitations begins after two users have taken pictures of each other for three consecutive days. You may think that competition is the motivation behind Snapstreaks, but it is probably due to a psychological theory called the rule of reciprocity. Humans need to respond to positive action through another positive action. That's it, a Snapstreak was born. Children can become so obsessed with maintaining a series of problems that they allow their friends to access their accounts when they are unable to maintain their own series (which actually constitutes a risk.) for privacy). The rule is also at stake with "like the back" – when you like someone's post and you ask him to go back to boost your total number of likes. Of course, companies exploit the rule of reciprocity because more data points means more opportunities to understand their users and try to sell them content.

What to do. Help the children understand how companies like Snapchat use their (positive) desire to be kind to their friends to get them to use their product more. If your child's streaks get out of control, try to allow once a day to send snapshots (for example, after taking out the trash, cleaning his room and finishing his homework). Finally, if your children's streaks are just embarrassing and safe, you may have to go through this phase until your children move on to something new.

Random. If you knew that Instagram has updated your stream at exactly 15 o'clock everyday, that's when you check in, right? But that will not stop you from being stuck to your phone. Instead, social media companies use what are called "variable rewards". This technique requires us to constantly look for our "price", like those who love us, who liked our publications and who updated their status. (This is not a coincidence, it is also the method used by the slot machines for players to pull the lever.) As you never know what will happen, we always come back.

What to do. Disable the application notifications (usually present in your phone settings but also in the application settings). Schedule a timer for her to turn off every day at a certain time and then check your feeds.

In-app purchases. Free games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush attract you by promising you cheap thrills, then offer you integrated purchases that allow you to level up, buy currencies to use in the game, and so on. But what is really devious is the way companies continue to play – and buy. The more you use the game and the more integrated purchases you make, the more companies get to know you. Thanks to games that connect to Facebook, they also know who your friends are. This allows them to tailor specific products to specific times when you are most likely to buy.

What to do. Spring for the full and paid version of the games. They are cheaper – and safer in the long run.

Caroline Knorr is the editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media. This piece first ran to

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More reading:

Why mobile phones and pajama nights are such a bad mix (and what parents can do about it)

Does your child want to create a YouTube channel? Here are some tips to consider.

What parents should do instead of worrying that smartphones will "destroy" their children


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