Our letter to the APA

Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, ABPP
President 
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE 
Washington, DC 20002-4242

August 8, 2018

Dear Dr. Daniel,

We are writing to the American Psychological Association (APA) to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games. These techniques—employed without children’s or their parents’ knowledge or consent—increase kids’ overuse of digital devices, resulting in risks to their health and well-being. In recent months, leading tech executives have spoken out against these practices, focusing their concern on the exploitation of human psychological vulnerabilities for profit. However, the APA, which is tasked with protecting children and families from harmful psychological practices, has not yet made a statement on the matter.

In this letter, we describe how psychologists and other user experience (UX) researchers working for the consumer tech industry utilize persuasive technology (also called persuasive design or behavior design) to increase children’s use of social media and video games, how this fosters children’s overuse of screens, and how research demonstrates a connection between children’s screen overuse and two problems afflicting this generation of kids: mental health struggles and poor academic performance. The letter will conclude with a call to APA leadership to take strong actions that protect children and families from psychologists’ development of persuasive technologies that pose risks to children’s health and welfare. 

We acknowledge that psychologists can and do work to make screen media products that are developmentally appropriate and even help advance academic and socio-emotional skills of children. This letter is primarily concerned with the use of persuasive design practices that encourage children’s excessive use of social media, video games, and smartphones for entertainment. 

Persuasive technology is the design of digital devices and apps to influence human thoughts and behavior. While these techniques are used for positive purposes (e.g., more efficient website navigation), they are also employed with the guidance of psychologists and other behavior experts working in the tech industry to persuade users, many of whom are children, to spend long periods of time using social media and video game sites. As Ramsay Brown, neuroscientist and co-founder of the artificial intelligence/machine learning company Boundless Mind, says in a recent Time article, “Your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone… Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone.” 

One significant concern about psychologists’ role in the development of persuasive design for social media and video game products is that such design capitalizes on children’s developmental vulnerabilities. For example, the desire for social acceptance and the fear of social rejection are exploited by psychologists and other behavior change experts to pull users into social media sites and keep them there for long periods of time. Yet, as psychologists are well aware, children—especially preteens and teens—have particular developmental sensitivities to being socially accepted or rejected.  

Likewise, psychologists working for the video game industry take advantage of the inherent developmental drive in preteen and teen boys to gain competencies, or abilities that have helped them throughout history become evolutionarily successful. Psychologists and other UX researchers create video games with powerful rewards doled out on intermittent schedules that convince kids, especially adolescent boys, that they are mastering important competencies through game play. This is contributing to a generation of boys and young men who are overusing video games at the expense of obtaining real-world competencies, including a college education or job. 

Another concern about psychologists’ role in developing persuasive technologies is that this contributes to health risks associated with kids’ overuse of digital devices. The typical U.S. teen now spends 6 hours, 40 minutes a day using screens for entertainment. Less advantaged kids are even more immersed in screens, as lower-income teens spend 8 hours, 7 minutes a day using screens for entertainment, compared to 5 hours, 42 minutes for their higher-income peers, and black teens spend 8 hours, 26 minutes compared to 6 hours, 18 minutes for white teenagers.

Unfortunately, the heavy screen- and phone-based lives of this generation of children are putting their emotional well-being and academic success at risk. Recent research shows that teen girls who spend more time using social media or smartphones and other devices are at greater risk for depression and suicide-related behaviors compared with teen girls who spend less. 

Similarly, since boys game more than girls, and gaming is associated with lower academic performance, it’s no surprise to see this generation of boys struggling to make it to college: 56% of college admissions are granted to young women compared with only 44% to young men. Moreover, as boys transition to adulthood, they can’t shake their gaming habits. Economists working with the National Bureau of Economic Research recently demonstrated how many young U.S. young men are choosing to play video games rather than join the workforce. 

The profound amount of time kids spend using digital devices for entertainment is also putting tremendous stress on families. A recent APA poll found that almost half of 
parents “say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle,” and more than half of parents “report feeling like their child is attached to their phone or tablet.” 

Leading tech executives are speaking out against the use of persuasive design in children’s digital products. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, said of consumer tech businesses, “The job of these companies is to hook people, and they do that by hijacking our psychological vulnerabilities.” Sean Parker, former Facebook president, stated that social media companies exploit “vulnerability in human psychology” and remarked, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And Marc Benioff, CEO of the cloud computing company Salesforce, said of social media that “product designers are working to make those products more addictive” and that such technologies are not “understood by parents,” which gives social media firms an “unfair advantage.”
 
In contrast, the APA has not yet addressed how psychologists and their behavior change tools are used by the tech industry to manipulate children for profit. This is in opposition to APA Ethical Principles and Standards, including the essential tenet to “take care to do no harm.” 

Altering children’s behavior without their own or their parents’ consent also runs counter to the APA Ethical Principle of Integrity, which states, “Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness” in the science and practice of psychology and do not engage in “subterfuge.” The great majority of parents have no idea that the social media and video games used by children are developed by psychologists and other experts who use advanced behavior change techniques to pull kids into these platforms and keep them there as long as possible. Moreover, such ethical transgressions are amplified because it’s children who are being influenced. The APA’s Ethics Code provides special protection to kids because their developmental “vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making.”

The APA states that its primary vision is “to excel as a valuable, effective and influential organization advancing psychology as a science.” This vision can only be achieved if psychology is viewed as a positive rather than exploitive practice. We therefore recommend that the APA take these actions: 

  • Call on psychologists and the tech industry to disclose their use of psychological persuasion techniques, especially those in digital products used by children.
  • Issue a formal public statement condemning psychologists’ role in designing persuasive technologies that increase children's time spent on digital devices, as kids’ screen overuse poses risks to their emotional wellbeing and academic success 
  • Take strong actions to educate parents, schools, and child advocates about the use of psychological persuasion in social media and video games; and inform the public of the harms of children’s overuse of screens.

Through these actions, the APA can fulfill its duty to protect children and families, while also sending a clear message that psychologists and their powerful tools are devoted to advancing, not detracting from, children’s health and well-being.

Sincerely,

(affiliations are listed for identification purposes only)

Craig A. Anderson, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University

Claire Azron, LCSW

Mary Anne Beach, PhD, psychologist

Faith Boninger, PhD, Research Associate and Co-Director of the National Education Policy Center's Commercialism in Education Research Unit, University of Colorado Boulder; co-author of Sold Out: How Marketing in School Threatens Children's Well-Being and Undermines their Education

Joanne Broder Sumerson, PhD, MEd, co-founding Associate Editor, Psychology of Popular Media Culture; Affiliate Professor, Saint Joseph’s University; author of Finish Your Dissertation, Don’t Let It Finish You!

Elisa Brunelle, PsyD

Whitney Buckley, PsyD, Clinical Child Psychologist, School Psychologist

Brad J. Bushman, PhD, Professor of Communication and Psychology, and Rinehart Chair of Mass Communication, The Ohio State University

Hilarie Cash, PhD, Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of reSTART Life, PLLC

Jay Cozen, PsyD, psychologist

JoAnn Deak, PhD

Sarah E. Domoff, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Central Michigan University

Doug Fagen, PhD, Director, Reservoir Psychology Group

Lorena Flores, PsyD, psychologist

Dr. Amy Fortney-Parks, LPC, ACS, Child & Adolescent Psychologist and Parent Consultant

Blaine J. Fowers, Professor, University of Miami

Richard Freed, PhD, psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age

Virginia Fundora, PhD

Douglas A. Gentile, PhD, Professor, Psychology, Iowa State University

Don Grant, CCDC, MA, MFA, PhD, Chair of The American Psychological (Div. 46) Device Management Committee; Co-Founder/Executive Director, Resolutions Teen Center

David N. Greenfield, PhD, MS, Medical and Prescribing Psychologist; Founder, The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction; Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Connecticut, School of Medicine

Professor Patricia M. Greenfield, PhD

Martha P. Harris, PhD, Developmental and Clinical Psychologist, Lafayette, California

Erin M. Johnson, PsyD, Associate Teaching Professor, Applied Psychology, Penn State University Berks

Cindy Kaplan, MA, Certified Parent Coach

Deborah Kaplan, PhD, psychologist

Tim Kasser, PhD, Professor & Chair of Psychology, Knox College; author of The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press) and co-editor of Psychology & Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World (APA)

Brett P. Kennedy, PsyD, Co-Director, Digital Media treatment and Education Center

Laurie Kleen, owner of A Growing Place Montessori School, Missouri

Velma LaPoint, PhD, Professor, Child Development, Department of Human Development and Psychoeducational Studies, School of Education, Howard University

Diane Levin, PhD, Clinical Professor of Education & Human Development, Wheelock College of Boston University

Jennifer Ruh Linder, PhD, Chair and Professor of Psychology, Linfield College

Susan Linn, EdD, Research Associate, Boston Children’s Hospital; author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood

Jeff Lough, LEP, Nationally Certified School Psychologist

Roxana Marachi, PhD, Associate Professor of Education, San José State University; Education Chair, San José Silicon Valley NAACP; EduResearcher

Tracy Markle, MA, Clinical Director of Therapeutic Services, Markle Solutions, LLC

Sharon Maxwell, PhD, author of The Talk: A Breakthrough Guide to Raising Healthy Kids in an Oversexualized, Online, In-your-face World

Kate Klein McGoldrick, PhD

Lucina Miranda, PsyD, psychologist

Joel M. Moskowitz, PhD, Director, Center for Family and Community Health, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; editor of Electromagnetic Radiation Safety; advisor to the International EMF Scientist Appeal and Physicians for Safe Technology

Meghan Owenz, PhD, Assistant Teaching Professor, Penn State University, Berks, and creator of ScreenFreeParenting.com

Rob Park, PsyD, psychologist

Tedora Pavkovic, MA

Fred J. Piazza, PhD, psychologist

Mary Pipher, psychologist and author

Larry D. Rosen, PhD, co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World; Professor Emeritus, California State University, Dominguez Hills

Neil Rosen, PsyD, PC

David Rouslin, PhD, psychologist

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, FAAFP, author of four books for parents including Boys Adrift and The Collapse of Parenting

Barbara Schecter, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Sarah Lawrence College

Heather L. Silvestri, PhD

Joni Siani, MEd, author and filmmaker of Celling Your Soul, No App for Life

Jennifer M. Smith, PhD

Patricia A. Snyder, PhD, Professor Emerita of Psychology, Albright College

Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age

Jim Taylor, PhD, author of Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-fueled World

Sherry Turkle, PhD, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT

Jean M. Twenge, PhD, author of iGen and Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University

David Walsh, PhD, author of Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen

Kimberly Young, PsyD, Funder & Director, Center for Internet Addiction and Recovery and Netaddiction.com; author of Internet Addiction in Children and Adolescents
 


The following signatories were added after this letter was sent on August 8:

Brandon T. McDaniel, PhD, clinical psychologist

Dawn Brown, MS, doctoral candidate, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Trudy Helge, PsyD, Kaiser Permanente

Claudia Rodriguez, doctoral candidate, Argosy University

Kathleen Chwalisz, PhD, Professor and Program Director, Southern Illinois University

Julia Wright, PhD, research psychologist

Robert Perez, PhD, clinical psychologist

Rosemary Saidu, PhD, guidance counselor, National Open University of Nigeria

Chunyan Yang, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling, University of California Santa Barbara

Patrick McNicholas, MS candidate, University of Memphis

Nichole Kuck, doctoral candidate, Wright State University

Abigail Ngayan, PsyM candidate, Wright State University

Erin Deneke, PhD, LPC, Director of Research, Caron Treatment Centers

Wendy Smith, PhD, psychologist

Allison Straus, PsyD, Kaiser Permanente

Anne Wheeler, PhD, Research Public Health Analyst, RTI International

Nicholas Hoeh, PhD, ADHB

Katherine Lacasse, PhD, Assistant Professor, Psychology Department, Rhode Island College

Theresa Jackson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Bridgewater State University

Helene Cohen, PsyD, Plantation Psychological Associates

Robert Flahive, MS

Marek Kopacz, MD, PhD, VISN 2 Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, Veterans Affairs

John Peggau, PsyD, clinical psychologist, Psychology Consultants P.C.

Hector Chands, PsyD, psychologist

Anthony Benigno, PsyD, psychologist

Jessica Flermoen, PsyD

Ashley Doss, MA, doctoral candidate, Stephen F. Austin State University

Chelsea Wymer, MS candidate, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

Taylor Hutson, MS candidate, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

Jack Sawyer, PhD, former Associate Professor of Psychology and Sociology, Northwestern University; President, Parker Street Foundation

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus, DePaul University

George Hu, PsyD, clinical psychologist, United Family Healthcare

Cynthia Wagner, MA, Psychiatric/Psychological Services, Oaklawn Hospital

Peggy Nave, PsyD, clinical psychologist, Jefferson Day Report Center

Priya Pandit, PsyD, staff counselor, Sacred Heart University

Ryne Pulido, PhD, psychologist, Baylor Scott & White McLane Children's Specialty Clinic

Kimberly Lopez, doctoral candidate, Albizu University

Stephanie Vega, doctoral candidate, Albizu University

Haitisha Mehta, MA, student affiliate, APA

Melanie Munroe, MA, doctoral candidate, University of Toronto

Kristine Futa, PhD, psychologist, Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center

Jeanette Joyce, PhD, researcher, Marzano Research

Lara Barbir, MS, San Diego VA

Margaret Wallace, PhD, psychologist, Sage Psychological Consulting

Robert Dindinger, PhD, Utah Valley Psychology

Tiadora Kim, MA, doctoral candidate, Argosy University

Jennifer Hoover, PsyD, Children's Health

Adrienne Hunnicutt, PsyD, Children's Health

Sherrilyn Westbrook, PhD, Kaiser Permanente

Alex Sims, PhD, Tulane University

Dom DeSantis, PsyD, Orange Regional Medical Center

Marianne Arieux, PhD, SUNY Empire State College

Kathleen Charters, PhD, Henry M. Jackson Foundation

Kathryn Kominars, PhD, psychologist, Florida International University

Preet Sabharwal, PsyD, The Hume Center

Nina Kaur, PsyD, The Hume Center

Lynne Unikel, PhD, Albert Einstein Healthcare Network

Tony Scioli, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Keene State College

Sharon Chirban, PhD, Founder of Amplify Wellness + Performance

Raquel Smith, PhD, Former President, Santa Clara Association of School Psychologists

Jennifer Cartinella, PsyD, Kaiser Permanente, APA

Sheila Young, PhD, psychologist, VA Sierra Nevada Medical Clinic

Beth Longergan, PsyD, Director of Behavioral Health, UW Health

Krista Johnston, MA, doctoral candidate, BC Children's Hospital, Pacific Family Autism Network

Steven Tulkin, PhD, psychologist

Andris Skuja, PhD, Kaiser Permanente

Cheng Qian, doctoral candidate, Palo Alto University

Violeta Jaure, doctoral candidate, New Mexico State University

Thalia Goldstein, PhD, Assistant Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology, George Mason University

Gwendolyn Barnhart, doctoral candidate, Antioch University

Patricia DeBruhl, PhD, Banner Health

Annette Clarke, PhD, Palo Alto University, Marin County Behavioral Health

Artesia Williams, doctoral candidate, Georgia State University

Jennifer Kasey, PsyD

Kate Ekman, PsyD, Kaiser Permanente

Bob McPherson, PhD, Chair of the Department of Educational Psychology and Director of Training of Counseling Psychology, University of Houston

Seneca Erwin, doctoral candidate, University of Northern Colorado

Megan Solberg, doctoral candidate, University of Denver

Shannon Caramiello, PsyD, Psychology Resident, Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida

Dina Schwam, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology & Human Services, Mercer University

Carole Woolford-Hunt, PhD, Chair, Professor, Counseling Psychology Program Coordinator, Andrews University

Stephanie Dodge, PhD, West Hawaii Community Health Center

Lea Theodore, PhD, Adelphi University

Shweta Ghosh, MS, MetroHealth

Lisa Hardesty, PhD, Mayo Clinic

Marie Gehle, PsyD

Destiny Singleton, MA, University of South Florida

Patricia Hanson, MA, doctoral candidate, University of South Florida

Maureen Gonzales-Burris, PhD, psychologist

Margaret Robinson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University

Peiwen Ma, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, William Paterson University

Anne Kubal, PhD, psychologist, Director of Clinical Training, Eating Recovery Center

Carolyn O'Keefe, PsyD, California State University, San Bernardino

Shelley Alonso-Marsden, PhD, APA MHSAS Postdoctoral Fellow

Robert Moody, PhD, Santa Clara County Department of Behavioral Health

Alexis Hahn, doctoral student in counseling psychology, Chatham University

Paul Thomlinson, PhD, Executive Director, Compass Health Network

Bill Heusler, PsyD, Spectrum Psychological Associates

Susan Thomas, MA, DeAnza College

Jennifer Jackson, PhD, psychologist

Jennifer Geiman, doctoral student, University of Northern Colorado

Comfort Asanbe, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, The College of Staten Island/CUNY

Kee Straits, PhD, psychologist, TLC Transformations, LLC

Jeff Nerney, PsyD, Redwood Coast Medical Services

Ann Steel, MD, MA, LMHC Steel Counseling PLLC

Mark Griffiths, PhD, Director, International Gaming Research Unite, Nottingham Trent University, UK

Kristen Wortman, PhD, Research Fellow, VA Palo Alto

Kathy Conde, doctoral candidate, University of San Francisco

Ashley Geerts, MS, doctoral candidate, University of North Texas

Clare Mehta, PhD, Associate Professor, Emmanuel College

Kacie Yost, doctoral student, Chatham University

Rebecca Gaines, doctoral candidate, University of Denver

David Boninger, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Denver

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University

Maynard Anthony Johnston, MD FAAP, retired pediatrician

Alexis Menken, PhD, clinical psychologist, co-founder, Media Aware Events

Margo Adams Larsen, PhD, licensed psychologist, Research Director, Virtually Better, Inc.

Dr. Joseph D. White, clinical child psychologist in private practice

Kathleen Ervin, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist

Davina Muse, Masters in Counseling, LMHC private practice; Trainings Director, Simplicity Parenting

Cara deVries, Masters in Counseling Psychology, LMFT

Tracy Markle, MA Counseling Psychology; Founder & Co-Director; Digital Media Treatment & Education Center

J Duerr, MPH, President, California Public Health Association-North

Jessica Simon, PsyD, psychologist, art therapist, Healthy Foundations Group

Jan Beauregard, PhD, Clinical Director, Integrative Psychotherapy Institute of Virginia

Malcolm Gaines, PsyD, licensed psychologist

Alissa Glickman, PhD, psychologist, Rowan University SOM

Melissa Farley, PhD, Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Pantelis Proios, MA, Community Psychology, Coordinator of the ACT/MMME-Bias of the Association of Greek Psychologists, in cooperation with the American Psychological Association

Margaret Austin, PhD, clinical psychologist

Khadija Attarwala, MA in Career and Development Counseling, Counselor, NPS International School

Suanne Kowal-Connelly, MD Director of Pediatric Clinical Quality, LIFQHC

Christopher Willard, PsyD

Anne Sebanc, PhD, Associate Professor of Education & Child Development, Whittier College

Julie Bemerer, PsyD, Cincinnati Children's Hospital

Mary Jo Lee, MA, school psychologist

Julie Frechette, PhD, professor, Department of Communication, Worcester State University

Anastasia Fiandaca, MS, counselor, City College of San Francisco

Catherine Barber, PhD, Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas

Anne Lefebvre, DESS, Child/Adolescent Psychiatric Services, CHI de Créteil