Why do kids struggle to look up from devices? The answer is persuasive design.

Dr. Meghan Owenz and I have written a letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) that has brought national attention to the issue of persuasive design, which is the use of behavioral psychology to pull users onto devices and keep them there for as long as possible. The letter, organized by the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, raises concerns that psychologists–who are ethically bound to do no harm–are using their power to manipulate behavior to pull kids onto video games, social media, and smartphones. This contributes to children overusing screens and phones for entertainment (the average teen now spends 6 hours, 40 minutes with playtime screens each day) and this is putting kids’ emotional health and academic success at risk. Over 200 psychologists–including leaders in the field such as Drs. Jean Twenge, Sherry Turkle, and Mary Pipher–have signed the letter.

We are now asking you to join the effort calling on the APA to protect children from harmful persuasive design practices. Dr. Owenz (founder of Screen-free Parenting) and I have just written this Psychology Today article asking for parents, educators, health care providers, and concerned citizens to add their voice calling on the APA to address persuasive design. At the end of the article, you will see a link to quickly add your voice to this important cause. By working together, we will encourage the profession of psychology to be a powerful force that advances, not detracts from, children’s health and well-being.

A big thank you to Dr. Victoria Dunckley, author of the book Reset Your Child’s Brain, for hosting the article on Psychology Today.

Photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock
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  1. Sharon says:

    While the debate goes on about whether screens are addictive or whether the good benefits of tech outweighs the bad, as a parent living with a 24 male who I see daily struggling with screen addiction is painful. I have tried getting him help, limit and took away the devices, etc. but he doesn’t see what is the problem when he is so used to either having a laptop or cell phone, watching a game or participating in a game. He exhibits all the signs of someone who is addicted. He cannot focus on college work and has pretty much failed out… he convinced himself that he can multi-task. He was 90% completed before gaming took over in college. I think of all the college loans that will be coming due soon… I can hear the comments that we should have seen it coming and remove the devices. How do you remove something that is needed for school work. 10 years ago no one was raising these question, but he was using those devices and everything seem normal, he was an athlete and a regular student. Now college Electronic text books are cheaper and easier to control, so that by itself is an easy justification to access the Internet with his cell phone at work and read- that was what he told me. How can I say no to that. Keep in mind that after we found out he wasn’t doing well in school, we stopped paying for college and encouraged him to take online classes. We thought the structure at home would help. That was a big mistake! He used to attempt to hide the amount of time he games, but know he doesn’t even bother. When he is awake, he is gaming and hardly does chores around the house. He still have a job so he pays his car insurance and eats out. He also makes the effort to still take classes and does pays for it. He tells me he wants to finish school. What he doesn’t know is that the odds are stacked against him. Professional psychologist and game designers have created something so addictive that even though he has the best of intentions to do better he keeps getting kick down. It is intentional addiction. I have made copy of couple of the games, promising you will be addicted. On the other hand parents like me were totally clueless that something so fun could take over someone life so completely that they don’t want to do hardly anything else (eating, shower, laundry, etc.) What I observe and sad to say is his ‘denial’, the lack of social interactions beyond the online community, the tiredness, lost of interest in his dream to become a pilot – Air Force pilot… time is ticking by and no one has a solution. His money go towards instant gratification and I wonder what will he do when the loans come due, when he has to move out and get his own place? These thoughts go through my mind, because I have to treat him as an adult, albeit unprepared adult. I hope the jolt of reality will cause him to wake up out of the virtual world. I don’t know. I hope it will have a positive effect. Parents like me and his dad are at a loss, we hope that one day our voices will be heard. But right now its being drowned out by gaming profits. I try to educate parents with young kids the dangers of addictive screen activities. I hope it helps. In the meantime I pray daily for hope, hope for my son, and those like him who cannot seem to find the balance between a virtual world and a real world, will come out of the haziness and chose to participate in reality.

    • Richard Freed says:

      Dear Sharon,

      Thank you so much for your comment, and for being able to share your challenges at home. I believe in the power of voices such as yours. When I talk with groups, it’s so remarkably helpful to have parents such as you speak out, to help the parents of younger children understand the risks which are hidden to them.

      I am also hopeful that the American Psychological Association can understand your pain, to recognize how important it is that they take action on psychologists using their powerful tools to hook both children and adults on devices.

      My heart goes out to your family and I wish you the best. I’m hopeful you have the resources to consider professional help for your family, possibly with you working together with your son.

      Best to you,


      • Sharon says:

        Dr. Freed, thank you for responding. We have engaged a psychiatrist, but my son only attended the initial session and says he doesn’t believe he has the need to go back. As an adult I can’t make him. Also out of pocket cost is high. I believe more family would seek help if they have insurance help, but as long as there is no agreement by professional organizations such as APA that gaming and screen time is addictive, the insurance companies will not cover it. It is easier to get help for drug addiction than gaming. Also there is a stigma associated with seeing a psychiatrist – for anything but hopefully, that attitude will change by society as the result of these negative behavior becomes more prominent. However, I believe in prevention and it would have been better in the first place if we didn’t have seemingly innocent activities being pushed by the likes of the gaming community, being sold as pure fun but behind the scene for them to be profitable, they create addictive games.

        • Richard Freed says:

          You aptly describe the problem I see in my practice almost every day. American psychiatry is so far behind the science of recognizing that addiction is about the brain, not a substance, e.g., gambling addiction wasn’t recognized in the U.S. until 2013. Hopefully, things will change, and perhaps the World Health Organization recognizing gaming addiction will help things out. As much as your entire family and extended family could work on this together, I’m hopeful that could help turn things around.
          Best to you,

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