In 1991, a lawsuit against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco accused the company of targeting children with its “Joe Camel” ad campaign. The ads featured a cartoon camel character that the suit said lured children to become smokers. Six years later, the company settled out of court and voluntarily ended the Joe Camel campaign.
This week, a group of psychologists launched a battle against a more nebulous foe: the role their profession plays in developing technology that hooks children to social media, video gaming and other digital habits.
Sixty psychologists signed a letter addressed to the president of the American Psychological Association “to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques … [that] increase kids’ overuse of digital devices, resulting in risks to their health and well-being.”
The signatories criticized colleagues who have helped the tech industry use “persuasive technology” that capitalizes on children’s developmental vulnerabilities to help sell digital products. In particular, it said, adolescent girls’ inherent need for social acceptance and fitting in makes them easier to pull into social media sites, while boys’ evolutionary need to rack up competencies makes them perfect targets for video games and their reward-based structure.
The letter linked gaming with unemployment, and social media use with depression and suicide-related behaviors, and it asserted that the role of psychologists in helping develop such tools runs counter to the APA’s mandates to “do no harm” and to not engage in subterfuge. It called on the organization to condemn psychologists’ role in designing technology aimed to keep children in front of screens, and to insist that psychologists and the tech industry be transparent about their use of persuasion tactics, techniques of which many parents and children are unaware.
“A lot of it is buried within the particular industry, and they sometimes don’t talk about it outside, but … these technology and social media companies make money by people staying on their screens for longer,” said Richard Freed, a psychologist who is one of the letter’s signatories and the author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.”
– Tara Bahrampour
Image source – Flickr.com