The war on kids waged by the tech industry

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Kelly’s father explained that she destroyed her room and hit her mom after her phone was taken. Kelly told an officer that she wanted to kill herself when police arrived that evening. As a result, an ambulance was called, and the 15-year-old was strapped to a gurney, transported to a psychiatric hospital, and monitored for safety before being released. Kelly’s parents brought her to my office a few days after she was hospitalized. They wanted to get help for their troubled daughter.

First, Kelly’s parents spoke. The hospitalization of their daughter was the culmination of a yearlong downward spiral influenced by an obsession with technology. Kelly refused to spend time with her family or focus on her studies. It was much easier for her to live her life via social media. A previously happy girl and strong student, Kelly had grown angry, sullen, and was now bringing home report cards with sinking grades. Kelly’s parents had tried many times in prior months to set limits on their daughter’s phone use, but she had become increasingly defiant and deceitful, even sneaking on her phone at all hours of the night.

Parents felt compelled to intervene when Kelly’s latest report card revealed a number of failing grades. Kelly was told by her parents early that afternoon that she would have to turn in her phone by 9 p.m. But when the time came, she refused, and an argument ensued between her and her parents, resulting in Kelly’s hospitalization.

Kelly was sitting in a corner, so I asked her what her perspective was on that evening. She glared at her parents instead of responding. In a shocking turn of events, Kelly exclaimed: “They took my phone!phone!phone! Trying to engage her, I asked her what she liked about her phone and social media. “They bring me happiness,” she answered.

The Undoing of Families

Kelly and her family continued to meet with me in the following months, and two concerns dominated our discussions. Kelly’s dependence on her phone caused constant tension at home because of an unhealthy attachment. During our meetings, I learned that Kelly’s parents exhibited another concern. Although Kelly’s parents were loving and involved, Kelly’s mother could not escape feeling that they had failed their daughter and must have done something terribly wrong to cause her problems.

Children and adolescents like Kelly make up much of my clinical practice as a child and adolescent psychologist. Parenting these kids is the most challenging issue they face – and, in many cases, is tearing the family apart because of their extreme use of phones, video games, and social media. Although it’s remarkably clear that their phones are making them miserable, preteen and teen girls will not give up their phones. Additionally, I see far too many boys who are so obsessed with gaming that they ignore school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. During their late teens, some of these boys use their large bodies to terrorize parents who try to set gaming limits. Parents feel guilty for having put their kids on such a destructive path, which runs through many of these cases.

There is no solution to the destructive obsession of children and teens with technology that can be attributed to the virtually unknown merger between the tech industry and psychology. By seizing the immense wealth of the consumer tech industry and applying psychological research to it, it is possible to develop social media, mobile games, and phones with powerful drug-like effects that seduce young users.

In fact, these parents have no idea that psychologists, neuroscientists, and social scientists devise products to catch their children’s attention for industry profit by exploiting their psychological vulnerabilities. Parents and the world at large still don’t understand that psychology, a discipline associated with healing, is now being utilized as a weapon against children.

“Machines Designed to Change Humans”

Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, founded in 1998, is housed in an unassuming building on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California. The lab’s creator, Dr. B.J. Fogg, is a psychologist and the father of persuasive technology, a field where digital machines and apps, such as smartphones, social media, and video games, can be used to change human behavior. “Machines designed to change humans,” proclaims the lab’s website.

Called the “millionaire maker,” Fogg has cultivated former students who have applied his methods to create technologies that now consume kids’ lives. He believes that smartphones and other digital devices can change what people think and how they act: “We now have the capability to design machines that can change what people think and do, and these machines can do that autonomously.” As he recently touted on his personal website, “My students often do groundbreaking projects, and they continue having impact in the real world after they leave Stanford… For example, Instagram has influenced the behavior of over 800 million people. The co-founder was a student of mine.”

There are indications that Fogg is feeling the heat from recent scrutiny of the use of digital devices to influence behavior. As of January 2018, his website no longer displayed his boast about Instagram. Fogg’s website has recently been overhauled, as he seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, stating, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products and services that benefit everyday people.” The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website also asserts, “Persuasive technology can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education.” We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

While Fogg emphasizes persuasive design’s sunny future, he is quite indifferent to the disturbing reality now: that hidden influence techniques are being used by the tech industry to hook and exploit users for profit. His enthusiastic vision also conveniently neglects to include how this generation of children and teens, with their highly malleable minds, is being manipulated and hurt by forces unseen.

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