Children’s Screen Time Action Network (2018). Our letter to the APA.

Children’s Screen Time Action Network. (2018, August 8). Our letter to the APA. Retrieved from

[“Exploitation of human psychological vulnerabilities for profit” …]

“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.” (¶1)

[Will show how psychologists’ work in tech is damaging to children …]

“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[1] and poor academic performance[2].” (¶2)

[Unethical design that manipulates children …]

“Persuasive technology is the design[3] 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.” (¶4)

[Peer pressure …]

“… the desire for social acceptance and the fear of social rejection are exploited[4] by psychologists and other behavior change experts to pull users into social media sites and keep them there for long periods of time.” (¶5)

[Psychological manipulation of young people such that they ignore real-world skills …]

“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[5] 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.” (¶6)


“The typical U.S. teen now spends[6] 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.” (¶7)

[Clear mental health and developmental risks …]

“… 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[7] for depression and suicide-related behaviors compared with teen girls who spend less.” (¶8)


“Economists working with the National Bureau of Economic Research recently demonstrated[8] how many young U.S. young men are choosing to play video games rather than join the workforce.” (¶9)

[Industry insiders express their disillusionment …]

“Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, said[9] 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[10] 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[11] 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.'” (¶11)


“… manipulate children for profit. This is in opposition to APA Ethical Principles and Standards[12], including the essential tenet to ‘take care to do no harm.'” (¶12)

[Parents are unaware of the behavioural effects of online media on their children …]

“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.” (¶13)

[228 signatories including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD; Sherry Turkle, PhD; and Jean M. Twenge, PhD.]

Selected References

  • 1. Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17. (
  • 2. Robert M. Pressman, Judith A. Owens, Allison Schettini Evans & Melissa L. Nemon (2014) Examining the Interface of Family and Personal Traits, Media, and Academic Imperatives Using the Learning Habit Study, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42:5, 347-363, DOI: 10.1080/01926187.2014.935684 (
  • 3. Berdichevsky, D., & Neuenschwander, E. (1999). Toward an ethics of persuasive technology. Communications of the ACM, 42(5), 51-58. (
  • 4. Fogg, B. J. (2009, April). A behavior model for persuasive design. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Persuasive Technology (p. 40). ACM. (
  • 5. Webb, G. (2010). The Killing Game. Sacramento News & Review. (
  • 6. Common Sense Media. (2015) The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. (
  • 7. Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among US adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3-17. (
  • 8. Aguia, M., Bils, M., Kofi, K. C., Hurst, E. (2017) Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men. National Bureau of Economic Research. (
  • 9. Leslie, I. (2016, October 20). The scientists who make apps addictive. 1843. Retrieved from
  • 10. Allen, M. (2017, November 9). Sean Parker unloads on Facebook: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” Axios. Retrieved from
  • 11. Balakrishnan, A. (2018, January 23). Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says regulate Facebook like tobacco. Retrieved January 24, 2019, from
  • 12. American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. (
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