Advocates ask American Psychological Association to condemn tactics used to hook kids on screen devices

Date of Release: 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Contact: 
David Monahan, CCFC: david@commercialfreechildhood.org; 617-896-9397
Dr. Richard Freed: RichardNFreed@gmail.com; 415-298-1250
Dr. Meghan Owenz: muo70@psu.edu; 305-904-6115

Advocates ask American Psychological Association to condemn tactics used to hook kids on screen devices 
Some psychologists aid industry in manipulating kids

BOSTON, MA — August 8, 2018 —A group of leading psychologists is urging the American Psychological Association (APA) to take a formal stand against the use of manipulative psychological techniques to get children to use and stay on digital devices. In a letter sent today to APA President Dr. Jessica Henderson-Daniel, more than 50 psychologists urged the APA to “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.” Signatories include Drs. Sherry Turkle, Jean Twenge, Douglas Gentile, Mary Pipher and Leonard Sax. The letter was organized by the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, which is a project of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), and written by psychologists Richard Freed, Ph.D. and Meghan Owenz, Ph.D.

“Parents have no idea that psychology—a discipline associated with healing—is being used to lure kids into a life spent with digital devices that pose risks to their wellbeing,” said Dr. Freed, psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. “We call on the APA to lead the way in ensuring that our profession is used for good, not hijacked to earn profits for Big Tech.” In March, Dr. Freed’s article “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids” documented how psychology is being used to manipulate children and keep them on their devices.

“Many psychologists are leading the charge in researching children and media,” said Dr. Owenz, Assistant Teaching Professor, Penn State University, Berks, and creator of ScreenFreeParenting.com. “Now is the time to join other organizations and professions, including technology experts and pediatricians, in using our expertise to make a positive impact in addressing the effects of excessive recreational media use by children.”

The psychologists’ letter was sent on the eve of the APA’s annual convention in San Francisco on August 9-12. The letter asks the APA to “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 wellbeing.” The Children’s Screen Time Action Network will be exhibiting at the convention and urging attendees to join a growing movement of professionals working to reduce children’s device use and improve their wellbeing. 

“The excessive and compulsive use of devices interferes with the face-to-face relationships that are so crucial to social and emotional development,” said Dr. Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation. “It is deeply troubling that some psychologists are aiding and abetting the tech industry’s attempt to compel our children’s attention. It is time for the APA to take a principled stand.”

Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen, said, “Overuse of digital media is linked to unhappiness, depression, and suicide risk factors, while limited use appears to be low-risk. However, many apps, games, and websites make more money the more time children and teens spend on them. Many companies are doing everything they can to make sure that limited use is not the norm, and that needs to stop.”

The letter urges the APA to: 

  • 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 
  • Call on psychologists and the tech industry to disclose their use of psychological persuasion techniques, especially those in digital products used by children 
  • 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

"We created the Children Screen’s Time Action Network to unite and empower professionals who believe that reducing kids' device use is both necessary and possible,” added CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin. “We are thrilled that Action Network members are challenging their professional institutions to address the role that psychology has played in hooking kids on tech." 

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