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Are psychological techniques keeping kids online? And if so, are psychologists to blame?

In this photograph illustration a ten-year-old boy uses an Apple Ipad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom.
In this photograph illustration a ten-year-old boy uses an Apple Ipad tablet computer on November 29, 2011 in Knutsford, United Kingdom.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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Children's advocates want the American Psychological Association to condemn the tech industry's practice of using persuasive psychological techniques to keep kids glued to their screens.

The advocates, citing research that links excessive use of social media and video games with depression and academic troubles, say it's unethical for psychologists to be involved in tactics that risk harming kids' well-being. Skeptics say the research is inconclusive, and they note that psychologists have been involved in other industries' marketing and advertising for decades.

The group seeking intervention includes 60 U.S. psychologists, researchers, children's advocates and the Children's Screen Time Action Network, a project of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The network was publishing a letter Wednesday to the American Psychological Association, coinciding with the association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

"There are powerful psychology principles and technology that are being used against kids in ways that are not in their best interests," said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. That technology uses computers to help figure out what motivates people and influence their online behavior. It's built on age-old tenets of behavioral psychology that marketers and advertisers have long used to get people to buy their products.

The difference is smartphones are ubiquitous and unlike human marketers, they don't get tired, said B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University who has been called the technology's pioneer. Fogg said he has aimed to use persuasive tech to enhance people's lives. But he also said he has long warned that it has a "dark side," including potential loss of privacy and the potential for encouraging behavior that isn't in users' best interests.

So do those psych techniques enhance kids’ lives as well? We examine the role of psychology in the development of technology and how it affects children. 

With files from the Associated Press

AirTalk invited the American Psychological Association to participate in this discussion or provide comment, but they have yet to respond to our request. We will update this segment if we receive a response.


Richard Freed, child and adolescent psychologist based in Walnut Creek, California, who focuses on children’s use of technology; author of the book, “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age” (Create Space, 2015)

Kit Yarrow, consumer research psychologist, professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy” (Jossey-Bass, March 2014)