Tech's Exploitative Relationship With Children is a Public Health Risk

15 June 2018

The Disrupted Childhood Report, co-authored by the 5Rights Foundation, the charity advocating for children’s rights online, and Schillings, outlines the damaging effects of ‘persuasive design’* on childhood.

The report sets out how ‘persuasive design’ practices deliberately keep children online to collect their data for commercial gain. The report sets out how the strategies exploit human instincts, how they are deployed, why they are habit-forming and what emotional, physical and educational development impacts they are having on a generation of children.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder and Chair of 5Rights Foundation, and report co-author says: “The tech industry needs to look at their stratospheric share prices, then our children, and decide which is more important. Children need a new deal."

The 24 recommendations contained in the report call on the tech sector to make seismic changes to the design of products and services in order to meet the needs of children. They also call on government to add ‘compulsive use’ to its current list of harms in all policies and to set up a centre of expertise for policy and research, in instances where it intersects with childhood.

In addition to consolidating research from academics (including EU Kids Online, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and LSE, American Psychological Association, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and a roll call of dismayed tech insiders (Tim Berners-Lee, Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, Nir Eyal, Sean Parker), importantly the report also features the voices of children, who themselves are asking for fairer treatment.

Jenny Afia, Partner at Schillings and co-author of the report, comments: “Struggles between parents and children over screens are the result of a far deeper conflict between a system designed to be compulsive, worth billions of pounds to shareholders, and the needs and legal rights of children."

The report points out that designing services to be compulsive, and then asking kids to put their phones down is not the answer. Access to digital services for entertainment, socialising, learning and citizenship is crucially important to children, young people and the future of society as a whole. What is required is access - but on terms that meet the needs and rights of children.

To download the 'Disrupted Childhood' Report and view its recommendations for industry, government, parents and investors, visit:

*What is persuasive design? 

Persuasive design practices manipulate innate human behaviour. The Disrupted Childhood Report highlights how digital services routinely deploy persuasive techniques with the specific intent to collect personal data for commercial use. A third of all users globally are under 18. Examples of persuasive design include:

  • The rush: design features built around rewards and anticipations, such as Likes, hearts and comments, which create expectations, elicit dopamine hits and fuel the need for the next response - all to extend the time spent on digital services.
  • The popularity contest: design features which exploit the fear of not appearing popular, such as public counts of friends, followers, Likes and retweets. Measuring friendship numerically creates an arms race for more interaction, more friends - and as the research shows - denudes the quality of relationships.
  • The summons: alerts that play into our innate response to movement, noise and light, such as the buzzes, pings, vibrations and notifications coloured red.
  • Losing time: design features built to remove the need to make a conscious decision to keep using a digital service, such as auto play, auto suggestions, infinite scrolling and games with no save option. In the name of ‘personalisation’ these techniques pull children into a bubble of suggestion and activity with no end.
  • The social obligation: design features built to exploit the human need to be social, such as SnapChat streaks that can trap young people in multiple relationships that they find time-consuming to maintain, and hard to get out. And ‘online now’ status, typing bubbles, read receipts… scores of tiny obligations that build into an overwhelming struggle for a child’s attention.
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