Baroness Beeban Kidron

Baroness Beeban Kidron, Founder of 5Rights Foundation, explains ‘persuasive design’ and how it has become a public health issue for children. 

The young people we work with admit to being both devoted to, and oppressed by, their phones. They also tell us that they have little choice. Whether they are learning, being entertained or socialising with friends or family, much of their time and many of their relationships are mediated by the digital services and devices that they are using.

In the UK, 86% of three to four year olds have access to a tablet, and 83% of 12 to 15 year olds own a smartphone. The sight of a child glued to a device is ubiquitous, the problem is clear, the reason less so. 

5Rights' report, Disrupted Childhood, explains how persuasive design strategies are baked into the services and products children are using. Persuasive design - also referred to as reward loops, captology, sticky, dwell features - are the strategies designed to make a user act in a certain way. Most often deployed to keep the user using.  

In a startling set of research from across the globe, the report explores the negative impacts for children, and point to the steps that  industry, government, parents and investors must now take to combat what we conclude is a public health issue. 

The easiest way to understand persuasive design is to think of a global scale experiment by Pavlov in which the user is the dog! The hooks and tricks used by designers work in a similar way, exploiting human instincts.

We react to sounds, lights and buzzes; respond to small rewards in the form of 'likes', notifications, messages; uphold social obligation and reciprocation in the form of streaks, retweets, read receipts; and are captured by the next thing in the form of autoplay, auto suggestions, endless feeds with no breaks, signposts out or time limits. 

Each interaction is, in itself, small; but the totality of the experience overwhelming, creating an epidemic of social anxiety, sleep deprivation, low self-esteem, social aggression and denuded relationships. The quantifying of friendships in 'likes' and numbers impacts on the nature of relationships, as small gestures of personal worth must be constantly gathered to the detriment of other activities.  

Meanwhile, the constant demands of services, that are often the first thing a child attends to in the morning, are carried at all times, increasing interrupted lessons, occupying young people at night, and having measurable effects on their educational attainment, health and wellbeing, as well as undermining the development of memory, social confidence, creativity and original thought. 

These hooks are not there by accident, but are the intended product of a multi-billion dollar ‘attention economy’ industry. The longer you or, in this case, your children are on line, the more time they have to watch the advertising, which is the business model of the industry.  

But far more insidious for children, and less understood, is that the longer you stay online; the more data you create, the more the online services know about you, the more your behaviour can be tweaked and persuaded.

The immense value of this data and the lengths to which the digital environment is designed to gather it are opaque to most users, and nearly all children. What is more concerning still, is that the data gathered is used to promote compulsive use, for commercial benefit and with no concern for a child’s wellbeing or the opportunity cost.

The children who contributed to our report call for fairer treatment. They want to be online, in ways that give them autonomy and strength, but increasingly feel it is designed to exploit or hurt them.  

At 5Rights, we believe that access to digital services is crucially important to children, young people and the future of society as a whole. However, designing services to be compulsive and then asking kids to put their phones down is at best optimistic and at worst abusive. 

All other potentially addictive consumer products are permitted only with extremely strong protections for children and young people. Which makes it extraordinary that civil society has been so slow, government so reluctant and tech so shameless in refusing to recognise that the use of persuasive technologies to promote compulsive use is a public health issue.

Self-regulation has proven inadequate, and technology companies have consistently failed to prioritise the needs of children. This lack of regard for the status of children reverses over 150 years of hard-won cultural, legal and familial protections and privileges given to children.

The consultation regarding the introduction of the Age-Appropriate Design Code into the Data Protection Act 2018 in the UK offers a unique opportunity to set a higher bar on data regulation. It will take into account children’s (those under 18) development milestones and prioritise their ‘best interests’. Among the aspects of design to be considered in the Code are strategies that encourage extended user engagement.

This is the first time that persuasive design will form part of a statutory regulatory framework, and will engender further research to assess persuasive design strategies and militate their impact on children and young people. 

For it to succeed, it is necessary that all public health professionals engage with the Information Commissioner’s call for evidence. She is seeking a broad range of opinions on a number of aspects of design in which extended engagement is just one.