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Your Attention is Being Manipulated: The Truth About Technology Addiction

Chances are you and your kids are spending more time in front of screens than you’d like. Around the world, kids and adults alike feel addicted to their technology — and this isn’t by accident.

Every day, we’re bombarded with virtual notifications, autoplay, feedback loops of likes and follows, and other tactics specifically designed to keep us glued to our devices.

The compulsion we feel around our devices isn’t simply the result of poor time management or lack of discipline. Digital manipulation is at play.

Research from the lab of BJ Fogg, Ph.D., a behavior scientist at Stanford, has shown that “behavior happens when motivation, ability and a prompt come together at the same moment.”

“We’re in essence working against teams of engineers and psychologists who are designing products to get and hold our attention in really specific ways,” says Rebecca Randall, VP Partnerships and Regional Growth at Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a rapidly changing world.

“They are also collecting our data in ways that we may not always understand, and their products filter information that we access, sometimes feeding us fake information and influencing what we buy and when we buy it.”

The YPO Parenting Community and Spouse/Partner Community recently held a global conference call on tech addiction and manipulation with Randall. She shared insights on digital manipulation, the risks of nonstop connectivity and achieving better balance.

Influence of digital manipulation

Technology companies employ persuasion techniques to hold your attention, collect data and influence your behaviors. Likes and follows offer motivation, affirmation and dopamine hits.

Notifications, including alerts and banners, indicate something needs attention, prompting the user to return to the device or app. And you return more frequently to feeds that are constantly in flux than you would to those that update at a set time.

With autoplay, the next video begins before you even decide to watch.

“Like feeds on Facebook or Instagram, autoplays on Netflix and YouTube set up this bottomless bowl phenomena, so we keep binging on content without any effort at all,” says Randall.

In-app purchases and streaks entice users, particularly kids, to spend money and time acquiring more features to further enhance the user experience.

“These kinds of ritual social contracts are powerful,” says Randall. “It’s the sense of reciprocity, where we are designed by nature to want to respond in kind to something that someone may have done for us.”

Data harvesting

Companies also collect data from searches, posts, likes, embedded cookies, surveys and contests to influence user behavior. Based on what you share, click and watch, algorithms point you to relevant content, creating a filter bubble and echo chamber, in which your own opinions are reflected back in the form of articles, ads and search results.

It can also expose you to false information based on what you want to hear.

True impact of technology

Common Sense Media found that 50 percent of teens report feeling addicted to technology. They are not alone: 27 percent of parents also report feeling addicted to technology.

The real concern is not physical dependency but the opportunity costs: 5 percent of teens are distracted by social media when doing homework, 42 percent agree that social media has taken them away from spending time with friends in person, more than half are distracted when they are with someone, and one-third have been awakened at night by a call, text or notification.

The compulsion we feel around our devices isn’t simply the result of poor time management or lack of discipline. Digital manipulation is at play.

8 ways to outsmart technology

While it’s clear there are a lot of potentially negative consequences, mobile technologies are an indispensable part of life. Here are a few things to do to help minimize screen time and protect your family from unnecessary distractions:

  1. Talk to your kids about technology. Take an age-appropriate approach and make them feel like they are “in the know.” “Knowing about these different techniques can be powerful for kids and can help them think more critically about the media that they are consuming,” says Randall. “It might even help them develop a new awareness about what’s influencing their behavior.”
  2. Check your usage. The latest IOS release lets you know how much time you spend online. You can use features like this to determine what kind of changes you want to make as a family.
  3. Turn off or limit notifications. “Seeing those tiny numbers on every app on your screen often adds to that feeling of urgency,” says Randall. “Limiting them or turning them off completely lessens that sense of pressure.”
  4. Check your feeds or post at a specific time. “Instead of checking each notification, turn off notifications. Have a limited amount of time when you can sit down, check your feeds, and respond to non-urgent texts and email,” says Randall.
  5. Turn off autoplay and in-app purchases. This will eliminate that bottomless bowl as well as any temptation to level up faster in a game.
  6. Go grayscale. Switching your smartphone screen to gray makes it less inviting.
  7. Work as a team. Set expectations such as device-free dinners and car rides as a family. Rather than simply pulling the plug on technology, empathize with your children and encourage them to check and think critically about their behavior.
  8. Understand the opportunity costs. Help your children figure out where media and technology have value and when it’s impeding friendships, team sports, homework or hobbies. Let them compare the differences of mind, focus and ideas with and without their devices by giving them either unlimited access or going completely device-free for a set period of time. “You can’t always cover children’s eyes; you have to teach them how to see,” says Randall.

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