Elisabeth Ribbans on persuasive design
Everyone wants to know where this period of exponential technological change will take us, but how much attention is paid to what it is doing to us — to our bodies, minds and souls? I am thinking in particular of our deep relationship with all things digital. According to a recent report by the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, Britons now spend an average of 24 hours a week online — almost twice as much as in 2007. The majority of that time is spent on mobile devices, with the average person fiddling with the phone for two hours and 49 minutes a day, rising to four hours a day for people aged 15 to 24.
We’re on our phones while watching TV, at the dinner table, walking down the street. Most of us instinctively feel this is not good. Many of us think we should moderate our own behaviour but find it hard to put our phones aside. More people ask whether our addiction to screens will be the “next tobacco”.
Well, I wouldn’t be surprised — and the worry should be that our children are even more hooked than we are. Parents may nag youngsters to put down their phones or tablets, but the fact is that, like all of us, kids are not in a battle against their own weakness but against the power of “persuasive design”, the expert mix of behavioural science and computer technology that digital services use to keep us addicted.
A fascinating study called “Disrupted Childhood”, published by the 5Rights Foundation, a British charity campaigning for the rights of children in the digital world, sounds the alarm for “the damaging effects of persuasive design on childhood”. It points to links with sleep deprivation, anxiety and negative effects on mental and physical development.
5Rights, which reports that 86 per cent of threeto four-year-olds have access to a tablet, is calling for compulsive use of technology to be recognized as a public health issue and for industry to put the best interests of children first. This concern is echoed in the US, where the Center for Humane Technology — led by Tristan Harris, the former “design ethicist” at Google — describes how platforms “point Ai-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply”.
The organization offers nine tips for taking back control. One is “go greyscale” — change your display to black-and-white because colourful icons reward the brain. I’ve done this and found that my phone is much less tempting, which as an adult who hoped she was rather more complicated I find both depressing and wonderful. But as the Center for Humane Technology tells us, to design humane technology, we need to start by understanding ourselves.