Nov 7, 2023
Well, I suppose it depends on the day, and which kid we ask, but for the most part, it isn’t our fault that the screentime battles end the way they do.
But why does it feel so much harder to peel away an iPad than a book? Why do the emotional outbursts after social media scrolling seem disproportionate to the general grumbling of being asked to do a chore?
It’s because Big Tech’s secret weapon is something called persuasive design, and it’s the biggest technological difference between our childhood and our children’s current reality. I like to think of it as a simple math equation:
Persuasive design = human psychology + technology
In other words, technology companies use the power of technology to influence and change our behavior.
A few years ago, only tech industry insiders were familiar with the term persuasive design. But the hard work of scientists, medical experts, and nonprofits such as Fairplay; documentaries such as Screenagers and The Social Dilemma; books such as Adam Alter’s Irresistible, Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, and Max Fisher’s The Chaos Machine; and the efforts of concerned educators, activists, and parents (like me!) who knew where to look and how deep to dig have all helped increase public awareness.
How Persuasive Design Works
Tech companies and app developers make money from advertising, which means they need us to spend more time engaging with their products. When platforms and apps capture our attention for longer, tech company profits increase. Developers and designers quickly realized how they built their products directly influenced how long we stayed online.
With new technological developments rolling out rapidly over the past couple of decades, our user experience has evolved too. To persuade us to engage longer, design features now trigger dopamine to be released in our brains.
App developers use the same intermittent reward system casinos use in slot machines to get and keep people hooked.
Dopamine is often thought of as the pleasure hormone, which is why things like food, sex, and drugs make us feel good. But dopamine is also involved in seeking behavior.
This means that dopamine impacts our desire for something and compels us to seek out more of the thing we want.
For children, tweens, and teens, playing on a tablet or scrolling through social media is not unlike substance use. The dopamine in their brains drives their desire to stay engaged longer, which means they will fight their parents even harder when it is time to turn them off.
As Ramsay Brown, neuroscientist and cofounder of Boundless Mind, a platform that uses AI and neuroscience to predict, shape, and analyze behavior, stated in 2018: “Your kid is not weak willed because he can’t get off his phone . . . Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.”
When it comes to taking away the iPad - or shutting off the video game - or stopping the social media scroll - parents need to understand that dopamine hijacking is why it is so difficult to end the screentime battles.
In other words, it’s not a fair fight.
As parents, we have to remember that we are fighting our child’s dopamine levels, not our child.
It is not parent vs. child; it is parent vs. hijacked neural pathways.
The peaks of dopamine caused by certain types of screentime—and the ways that excessive device use makes those feel-good pathways less sensitive, requiring more and more stimulation to experience that sense of pleasure—are a recipe for adolescent mental health crises.
It’s no coincidence that the Surgeon General announced this year that there is a youth mental health crisis in the United States due to excessive social media use.