What is Persuasive Technology?

"Social media and video game companies carefully design their products to be as addictive as possible."

I grew up with the internet. In high school, I regularly stayed up till three in the morning watching YouTube videos. This was normal among my peers—it was also normal to have trouble remembering things, have difficulty making eye contact, and be diagnosed with depression. It was obvious to me at the time that these things were, at least to some degree, related to our digital habits.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Well, in the moment, it was fun. Somehow, it seemed fun even when my eyes were bloodshot, I had a headache and I had barely left my room for a week. There was always another interesting thing to read or watch, just a click away.

While modern digital technologies are powerful, and can have many benefits, some of the less positive effects are increasingly obvious: eye damage, attention disorders, addictive behaviors, loss of social skills, even loss of a social fabric in which to practice those skills.

It is no accident that young people spend hours on digital media (with US teens averaging about 7.5 hours/day in 2019).[1] Social media and video game companies carefully design their products to be as addictive as possible, because their business model usually depends on maximizing ‘time on device’ to generate data and ad revenue, or encourage in-game purchases.[2] On top of that, there is the cumulative effect of millions of people competing to create the most eye-catching and engaging online content.

As a result, compulsive digital tech use is rampant. If this were confined to clickbait sites the solution would be simpler—complete avoidance would be an option. But pretty much everything on the internet can create unwanted habits, from email to database searching to blogs. It is possible to live without digital media—I did so for four years—but at present that approach limits one’s opportunities, and is not feasible or desirable for most people. Can we have the good things the internet provides, without the disruptive habits?

Until we create new cultural norms that restrict digital tech’s invasion of every aspect of life—or a digital paradigm that doesn’t aggressively leverage human psychology to keep people hooked—we need to help young people develop skills that enable them to take charge of their relationship with digital tech. We need to give them ways to build immunity to the nebulous thing variously referred to as habit-forming technology, persuasive technology, or behavior design.

The immunity-building regimen I have developed, through research and experimentation on myself and peers, involves three components:

Together, these three approaches can interrupt some of unconscious habits and habit-forming mechanisms through which tech use gets out of control.

How Persuasive Technology Works

The human brain works by linking things together—neurons, words and their meanings, places and memories of them, stimuli and behaviors. These associations can form sequences, which become habits.

Drawing on the field of behaviorism founded by B.F. Skinner, digital platforms create associations which shape behavior. Specifically, by linking something we desire or feel strongly about with an action the company wants us to take.[3] The desire for social connection can be linked to a behavior like checking notifications, which leads back to a social media site. Then, when someone takes the desired action, the habit is reinforced by a psychological reward—either a reward directly generated by the platform, such as an ‘achievement,’ or one generated by other people using the affordances of the platform, such as an exciting video or a ‘like.’ Pretty much every human desire is now targeted by this approach, thanks to competition between companies.

The companies responsible for vast swaths of the internet use this type of psychological technique to maximize ‘time on device’, the net result being widespread compulsive use and many people of all ages spending more time on screens than is healthy or desired. This is a difficult issue to confront for several reasons:

How can we navigate this complex situation? How can young people, whose identities and lives are often heavily invested in digital media, and who are immersed in a society where compulsive use of these technologies is the norm, be encouraged to find moderation, assess their habits and be intentional?

Learning to Pay Attention

When I was a teenager slouched over my laptop, it was not helpful for my parents to tell me I was damaging my eyes, or to express any other kind of concern about the effects of my actions. I grew up in a culture that valorizes rebellion against authority—adults telling me to do something made me want to do the opposite, even if I agreed with them.

While it’s helpful to tell young people about how and why digital tech is designed to shape their behavior—this is a fact of the world, which they can research themselves—it is not necessarily so helpful to tell them how they are affected by it. It can feel like an attempt to limit their freedom, creating pushback. Helping young people to see how designers of digital platforms are trying to control their behavior allows pushback to go in a more productive direction! Are the persuasive technologists succeeding? If so, in what ways? Better to ask the kids to figure that out for themselves, developing the habit of being more intentional with how they relate to devices in the process.

One excellent way to do this is to encourage them to keep a journal of their tech use. Whether it is the number of times they touch their cellphone, the number of hours they spend on screens in a week, or how much of that time they are spending on different activities, writing down observations as objectively as possible can be revealing. It’s easy not to remember where the time went but it’s hard to argue with one’s own record of it.

In addition to tracking their own behavior, young people can use journals to track the persuasive design features they find in their apps, games and websites, and ask questions about them. Why is this button here? Why did that message pop up at that specific time? What is this webpage trying to encourage me to do?

The more I consciously observe how I am impacted by digital tech, the more motivated I am to take charge of my interactions and ensure they serve my goals, not Google’s or Facebook’s. And the more I look for persuasive design in the digital places I go, the less likely I am to simply do whatever a website prompts me to do without noticing. The practice of observing and recording one’s tech habits is a way to wedge some conscious thought into sequences of behaviors that have become totally automatic.

Creating Habits of Intentional Use

Ideally, we should be helping young people create intentional use habits when they are the easiest to form—as soon as they have access to digital technology. But starting early is not always an option.

A ‘digital detox,’ a period of time without digital tech, can be helpful for creating intentional habits. When I started using computers again after years offline, it was relatively easy to stay on task and do exactly what I intended—my old habits had mostly faded into oblivion. Even a week can be enough time to create a divide between habits-before and habits-after, and give new habits a head start. Even a weekend would help.

One of the simplest ways to develop more intentional digital habits is to take a moment to decide on an intention before picking up a device, and practice sticking to it. The following exercise builds this skill:

As with paying attention, practicing intention can be aided by recording the intention and reflection in a notebook. Over time, young people who apply this exercise to their digital activities will build up an understanding of their own mind, making it easier to anticipate and prevent distractions before they happen. The habit of sticking to an intention can help counteract the numerous sources of distraction.

These tips can also help young people avoid developing gaming disorder symptoms.

"Game designers are, in a sense, experimental psychologists."

Video Game Design and Compulsive Gaming Disorder

Video games are designed to change player attitudes and behaviors. The changed behavior sought by gaming developers is hours spent gaming. To accomplish this, gaming companies hire experts who are skilled at using persuasive technology to capture attention, then build habits and commitments that keep gamers coming back.

In a job posting for a psychologist, Electronic Arts (one of the largest video game developers) stated that ‘We believe that all game designers are, in a sense, experimental psychologists.’ Considering the purpose of these psychological experiments, it’s no wonder that 3% of the 2.7 billion active gamers worldwide struggle with video game addiction, also known as gaming disorder.

Clinicians need to be equipped to deal with this growing problem. The practices of attention and intention, combined with a basic knowledge of how persuasive design works and a grasp of what is at stake (their time—that is, their lives), are one way young people can be empowered to stay in control when gaming and avoid negative side effects.

Seth Bunev

Seth Bunev

Seth Bunev is an outdoor educator and studies how mental experience has changed historically in tandem with cultural evolution. His book, Screenfarers: Nurturing Deliberate Action in a Digital World, is a guide for parents and teachers to how digital media shape the mind, and how young people can learn to sail the sea of information with skill and intention— rather than becoming habitually distracted through passive surfing.

References

  1. Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Edited by Ryan Hoover. Rev. ed. (New York, New York: Portfolio, 2014).
  2. Langvardt, Kyle. ‘Regulating Habit-Forming Technology’. (SSRN Electronic Journal, 2019).
  3. Rideout, V., and M. B. Robb. ‘The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2019’. (San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media, 2019).

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