Time To Tackle Tech’s Exploitative Relationship

Jenny Afia 19 Jun 2018

I always suspected I’d be one of those ‘cool’ mums. My children would be articulate and confident and together with my husband we would empower them to be the best versions of themselves. Then I had children.

The reality is I spend a lot of my time worrying and suspecting everyone else is doing a better job with their little ones. One aspect I’m increasingly worried about is screen time. Swing by my home and you’re likely to see my children gazing at YouTube or Netflix while I read work emails and “1 click” stuff from Amazon.

It’s small comfort to know that I’m not alone. One third of parents of children aged five to 15 struggle to manage their children’s screen time. Like many parents, I have mixed feelings about my children’s relationship with tech – proud when they expertly navigate the iPad like the next Steve Jobs or Angela Ahrendts, but panicked at headlines screaming about bullying and grooming.

Through my work with the children’s charity, 5Rights Foundation, I now appreciate that struggles between parents and children over screens are the result of a far deeper conflict between a system designed to be compulsive, worth billions to shareholders, and the rights and requirements of the young.

As 5Rights’s founder, Baroness Kidron, and I discussed the legality of the strategies used by tech companies to keep us and our children glued to screens, we felt it was important that more parents are made aware of them. Little tricks like the speech bubbles that appear when someone is typing, making it hard to put down our phones as we anticipate their response. How notifications tap into our human instinct to respond to noise and light, a legacy from our hunter-gatherer days when we needed to quickly react to changes in our surroundings.

That is why last week we published our Disrupted Childhood report. It pulls together, for the first time, the wide-ranging research about these ‘persuasive design strategies’. It spells out the commercial imperative and considers the impact this is having on our children’s mental and physical development. It delivers recommendations for the tech sector, government, investors and parents to help address this growing public health issue.

Thankfully, we are not alone. Only yesterday the World Health Organization listed computer gaming addiction as a mental health disorder, and a number of tech-insiders are now openly discussing their unease. Sean Parker, co-founder of Facebook, has said: “The whole thought process that went into building these platforms …was all about: ’How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

The UK government has wised up too and introduced a requirement in the Data Protection Act for the Information Commissioner to create an “Age-Appropriate Design Code”. The Code will take into account children’s development milestones and requires the Information Commissioner to prioritise the ‘best interests’ of children when considering what constitutes adequate data protection.

We hope that our report will join the growing body of voices agitating for change. No longer can tech companies continue using these persuasive design strategies on our children without proper transparency and awareness of what is going on.

I’m going to try to have a healthier relationship with tech at home. I’m switching off as many of the persuasive design features that I can. I’ve turned off auto play on YouTube, so the next video doesn’t automatically appear. I’ve also limited auto-suggestions so my children aren’t constantly being shown snippets of more content they are likely to want to watch. And most importantly, I’m trying to pick up my phone less.

Hopefully the result will be less tech tantrums. Or should that be fewer tantrums? Yet another thing to worry about.

To download the Disrupted Childhood report and view its recommendations, visit 5rightsframework.com

This article was first published in City AM on 19th June 2018.