By Kay Whatley
I’m no scientist, nor an expert on human nature, tech marketing, or child development. I’m merely an observer, a parent, and a user of technology who hopes for its best use without losing what’s going on in real life.
Feeling a vibration or hearing a tone, teens seem almost compelled to grab their smart phone. Even if they don’t accept the call or immediately read the message, they look to see whom is contacting them. Sometimes it looks like it is almost out of the teen’s control — an automatic and involuntary reaction.
Teens (and adults) can be observed grabbing their cell phones in an almost automatic fashion, whether they are on the couch, with family, in class, at church, or in a meeting. It seems more like an instant response, without them even thinking about it. I’ve seen it even when people shouldn’t be distracted — while walking or driving. There are enough anecdotes online of people walking into danger while on their phones, or having vehicle accidents while texting, that all should know better.
I, too, often grab my phone when it vibrates, pings, or rings, even when I’m busy. If I’m driving or in conversation, I try to stop myself from looking until a more appropriate time. I worry, though, that it may be harder for the teens who have grown up with cell phones to resist.
When one of our teens is in conversation or having a meal, a cell phone noise draws their attention immediately, distracting them. Asked to wait and focus on what they’re doing first, they seem unable to continue until they peek at their cell phone. I’ve seen their anxiety grow when they have to wait. (Anxiety rises, too, when they are trying to go to sleep at night, but they force themselves to respond to text messages instead of waiting until morning.)
When I see this compulsion, and the thoughtless, automatic reactions, I remember a story I first learned in school decades ago — that a researcher named Pavlov rang a bell and dogs salivated in response, as he had taught them to expect food when the bell rang. (If you delve further into literature on Pavlov’s experiments, you’ll find a much darker truth of animal experimentation, which is not addressed here.)
As an observer only, I see my family’s responses to their cell phones and think of Pavlov’s dogs. I wonder if the response to technology is somehow “impossible” to ignore. Could it be a type of Pavlovian response?
Pavlovian — automatic/involuntary response or reaction, as studied by Ivan Pavlov in his dog experiments.
The Pavlovian response is called “classical conditioning” and is a learned response to a stimulus, such as the dogs salivating in response to the bell (stimulus), in anticipation of food.
Are people being conditioned to our devices in a similar way? This is on my mind today, February 5, 2018, as two organizations have announced a new campaign “to protect young minds from the potential of digital manipulation and addiction.” This Truth About Tech campaign is being launched in response to impacts that tech insiders are seeing with young technology users these days. Raising alarm are Common Sense (an advocacy organization for kids in the digital age) and the Center for Humane Technology (an organization of tech insiders committed to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests).
From today’s announcement:
The campaign, called Truth About Tech, will put pressure on the tech industry to make its products less intrusive and less addictive. The effort will educate and inform the more than 80 million consumers who regularly turn to Common Sense for trustworthy, objective information to help make smart media choices for their families. And it will enlist designers and technologists from across the industry to recognize their moral responsibility to use technology for the greater good, as opposed to potentially harming kids.
The Center for Humane Technology is spearheaded by prominent industry insiders concerned about certain tech companies’ willingness and ability to control the actions and attention of billions of people. These leaders include Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist the Atlanticcalls “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” and Roger McNamee, the former Facebook investor and adviser. The growing ranks of concerned insiders has sparked a national outcry against the tech companies’ “arms race for consumer attention” by making aspects of their products addictive.
“Tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our kids, and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable,” said James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense. “Their business models often encourage them to do whatever they can to grab attention and data and then to worry about the consequences later, even though those very same consequences may at times hurt the social, emotional, and cognitive development of kids. It’s time to hold tech companies accountable for their efforts designed to target and manipulate young people. When parents learn how these companies can take advantage of our kids, they will join us in demanding the industry change its ways and improve certain practices.”
As a part of spreading the word, on Wednesday, February 7, 2018, Steyer and Harris will be unveiling A Road Map for Kids’ Digital Well-Being, at a tech conference in Washington, DC. More about that event is here. Their presentation will cover, in part, effects of technology on children:
…impacts can include attention and cognition disorders; depression, loneliness, stress, and anxiety; suicidal ideation; loss of productivity; hindrance of children’s development; lack of critical-thinking skills; and a misconstrued sense of culture.
The implication of their work is that technology companies may use tactics to maximize user attention, regardless of drawbacks to the user.
“The most powerful tech companies in the world are making deliberate decisions that do great harm,” said Harris, who will also serve as a senior fellow at Common Sense. “They’ve created the attention economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids. Technologists, engineers, and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world. Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible.”
Digital technology is integrated with life, and provides many advantages in accessing information or reaching out to family and friends. Its positives come with alarming negative potential, as described in the release:
Teenagers use an average of nine hours of media per day, and tweens use an average of six (Common Sense Census, 2015), and while many innovative technologies provide valuable experiences for kids, the amount of tech in their lives has negative effects. Half of teens feel addicted to their mobile devices, and the majority of parents (60 percent) feel their kids are addicted, according to a 2016 Common Sense report on technology addiction. A recent study of eighth-graders by Jean Twenge, author of iGen, found that heavy users are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy; 27 percent more likely to be depressed; and 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.
In response to escalating concerns about digital addiction, and as part of this campaign, Common Sense will conduct new research on the magnitude of digital addiction among youth and evaluate its near- and long-term impact. The organization will also work with the Center for Humane Technology and a consortium of concerned technologists to develop Standards of Ethical Design for the industry to prevent, avoid, and discourage digital addiction, and they will pursue an aggressive policy agenda for regulation of tech companies that are using manipulative practices on consumers.
To find out more about Common Sense and the Center for Humane Technology, visit their websites.
- Common Sense is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century. See commonsense.org..
- The Center for Humane Technology is a world-class team of former tech insiders and CEOs who are advancing thoughtful solutions to change the culture, business incentives, design techniques, and organizational structures driving how technology hijacks our brains. See humanetech.com.
With the beginning of this campaign, I am hopeful for a future where technology may continue to be a part of teen and adult lives, without distracting from real life — or causing continued anxiety, injuries, or deaths.
Source: Common Sense