Screen Time Reduction Skills

When They Know They Are Being Manipulated — It Can Help

Delaney Ruston, MD
July 7, 2020
manipulate sign

These are intense, social, political, medical, and emotional times. Here is the thing — getting more breaks from social media and screen time, in general, can serve as a positive recharge for our kids. But how to do this?  I want to suggest a really important conversation that might motivate your kids and teens to sign off a bit more.

First, we know via research and experience that as kids mature into their teen years, they become more prone to experiencing negative feelings toward signs of injustice. They also become more upset than when they were younger when they learn that they are being taken advantage of or manipulated.

So now, let's talk about tech companies. We all know that tech companies do a lot to keep our kids on screens. Indeed their business model depends on it — our kids do not pay for apps such as Snapchat or TikTok with dollars, but rather they pay with their attention. Given this, what do you think teens’ answers would be if they were asked if tech companies manipulate people?

A study in 2018 asked a nationally representative sample of 13 to 17-year-olds to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "Tech companies manipulate people into spending more time on devices."

I predicted that at least 90% would answer that they somewhat agreed.  I was very surprised to see the actual data.

It turns out only 72 percent agreed with the statement. That means that 28 percent of teens were not aware of this.

We want to make sure all youth and teens are aware of the ways tech tries to keep them (and all of us) on their products. There are many reasons we want them to know, including that the scientific evidence that knowledge helps them make healthier screen time decisions. Research shows that when young people know they are being manipulated, it works to change their behaviors for the positive.  

Let’s look at this fascinating research. Behavior change experts wanted to see how teens' decision making would be influenced if they were informed that a company was doing things to manipulate their choices. The researchers used junk food as the subject of the experiment. They knew that past campaigns to get adolescents to consume less junk food by educating them on health issues were generally ineffective.

Researchers David Yeager, Fred Steubinge, and others did a study where they divided eighth-graders into two groups. One group received traditional materials about how sugary snacks are unhealthy. The other group received information about how the sugar industry often relies on manipulative and unfair practices to attract kids to their products.

The next day, all the eighth-graders had snack time and got offered different food choices. They didn’t know that these snacks were related to the study. The students were offered healthy food options, along with traditional sugary junk food options, and were free to choose what they wanted. Students who received the information on the food industry's manipulative tactics were significantly less likely to eat junk food than those who received the lesson on its health consequences.

Let me share another important example of how raising awareness about manipulation can positively impact behaviors.

A group dedicated to decreasing smoking rates in the U.S., called Legacy, ran a public health campaign called "The Truth Initiative." They created ads showing body bags getting dumped outside the Philip Morris headquarters to illustrate the large number of deaths caused by tobacco use each day. This campaign purposely tapped into teens’ interest in justice and dislike of adults and companies that try to deceive them.  

The visual reminder that companies were selling products that killed people proved to be an incredibly successful way to decrease youths’ smoking rates. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that greater awareness of the “truth ads” among 15- to 21-year-olds strengthened their anti-smoking attitudes and increased their support for a social movement to end tobacco use. Researchers calculated that during its first four years, the campaign was directly responsible for keeping 450,000 teens from starting to smoke.

Sharing these studies with our kids and teens is a great way to start a conversation about how tech companies work to keep their attention, and ours as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that many teens are indeed aware of the fact that tech companies “manipulate people to be on their devices longer” based on the 72% in the survey that I mentioned in which  23% "strongly" agreed.

In one section of the survey, teens were prompted to write their thoughts, and these two teens expressed some real concerns:

"Instagram doesn't care how you use their app, they just care if they're getting used. If you're posting and being active, that's all they care about."—15-year-old

"The companies that own these social media should stop scamming teenagers into spending a majority of their time on their sites." — 16-year-old girl

Let’s see how your child would answer the survey question and what they think of the experiment and public health campaign I described today.

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. How much do you agree, or disagree, with this statement, "Tech companies manipulate people into spending more time on devices?"
  2. That question was asked of teens in a national survey, what percentage of teens do you think answered “No?”
  3. What do you think about the study above where eighth-graders were taught about the ways food companies that make junk food “sugar coat” their products and that knowing this fact led them to make healthier food choices the next day?
  4. Can you name some ways that tech companies work to get attention on their platforms? For example, Snapchat uses Streaks and Netflix releases a full season at one time rather than a single episode.

We NOW have a way for people to host online events during this time. We still strongly believe in the coming together as a group model for showing both movies, so these temporary online events will be here only while the social distancing is in place.

Click here if you are interested in hosting an ONLINE screening for your community.

Click here if you want to attend an ONLINE screening.


As well as our weekly blog, we publish videos like this one every week on the Screenagers YouTube channel

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Screen Time Reduction Skills

When They Know They Are Being Manipulated — It Can Help

Delaney Ruston, MD
July 7, 2020
manipulate sign

These are intense, social, political, medical, and emotional times. Here is the thing — getting more breaks from social media and screen time, in general, can serve as a positive recharge for our kids. But how to do this?  I want to suggest a really important conversation that might motivate your kids and teens to sign off a bit more.

First, we know via research and experience that as kids mature into their teen years, they become more prone to experiencing negative feelings toward signs of injustice. They also become more upset than when they were younger when they learn that they are being taken advantage of or manipulated.

So now, let's talk about tech companies. We all know that tech companies do a lot to keep our kids on screens. Indeed their business model depends on it — our kids do not pay for apps such as Snapchat or TikTok with dollars, but rather they pay with their attention. Given this, what do you think teens’ answers would be if they were asked if tech companies manipulate people?

A study in 2018 asked a nationally representative sample of 13 to 17-year-olds to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "Tech companies manipulate people into spending more time on devices."

I predicted that at least 90% would answer that they somewhat agreed.  I was very surprised to see the actual data.

It turns out only 72 percent agreed with the statement. That means that 28 percent of teens were not aware of this.

We want to make sure all youth and teens are aware of the ways tech tries to keep them (and all of us) on their products. There are many reasons we want them to know, including that the scientific evidence that knowledge helps them make healthier screen time decisions. Research shows that when young people know they are being manipulated, it works to change their behaviors for the positive.  

Let’s look at this fascinating research. Behavior change experts wanted to see how teens' decision making would be influenced if they were informed that a company was doing things to manipulate their choices. The researchers used junk food as the subject of the experiment. They knew that past campaigns to get adolescents to consume less junk food by educating them on health issues were generally ineffective.

Researchers David Yeager, Fred Steubinge, and others did a study where they divided eighth-graders into two groups. One group received traditional materials about how sugary snacks are unhealthy. The other group received information about how the sugar industry often relies on manipulative and unfair practices to attract kids to their products.

The next day, all the eighth-graders had snack time and got offered different food choices. They didn’t know that these snacks were related to the study. The students were offered healthy food options, along with traditional sugary junk food options, and were free to choose what they wanted. Students who received the information on the food industry's manipulative tactics were significantly less likely to eat junk food than those who received the lesson on its health consequences.

Let me share another important example of how raising awareness about manipulation can positively impact behaviors.

A group dedicated to decreasing smoking rates in the U.S., called Legacy, ran a public health campaign called "The Truth Initiative." They created ads showing body bags getting dumped outside the Philip Morris headquarters to illustrate the large number of deaths caused by tobacco use each day. This campaign purposely tapped into teens’ interest in justice and dislike of adults and companies that try to deceive them.  

The visual reminder that companies were selling products that killed people proved to be an incredibly successful way to decrease youths’ smoking rates. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that greater awareness of the “truth ads” among 15- to 21-year-olds strengthened their anti-smoking attitudes and increased their support for a social movement to end tobacco use. Researchers calculated that during its first four years, the campaign was directly responsible for keeping 450,000 teens from starting to smoke.

Sharing these studies with our kids and teens is a great way to start a conversation about how tech companies work to keep their attention, and ours as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that many teens are indeed aware of the fact that tech companies “manipulate people to be on their devices longer” based on the 72% in the survey that I mentioned in which  23% "strongly" agreed.

In one section of the survey, teens were prompted to write their thoughts, and these two teens expressed some real concerns:

"Instagram doesn't care how you use their app, they just care if they're getting used. If you're posting and being active, that's all they care about."—15-year-old

"The companies that own these social media should stop scamming teenagers into spending a majority of their time on their sites." — 16-year-old girl

Let’s see how your child would answer the survey question and what they think of the experiment and public health campaign I described today.

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. How much do you agree, or disagree, with this statement, "Tech companies manipulate people into spending more time on devices?"
  2. That question was asked of teens in a national survey, what percentage of teens do you think answered “No?”
  3. What do you think about the study above where eighth-graders were taught about the ways food companies that make junk food “sugar coat” their products and that knowing this fact led them to make healthier food choices the next day?
  4. Can you name some ways that tech companies work to get attention on their platforms? For example, Snapchat uses Streaks and Netflix releases a full season at one time rather than a single episode.

We NOW have a way for people to host online events during this time. We still strongly believe in the coming together as a group model for showing both movies, so these temporary online events will be here only while the social distancing is in place.

Click here if you are interested in hosting an ONLINE screening for your community.

Click here if you want to attend an ONLINE screening.


As well as our weekly blog, we publish videos like this one every week on the Screenagers YouTube channel

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parenting in the screen age

for more like this, DR. DELANEY RUSTON'S NEW BOOK, PARENTING IN THE SCREEN AGE, IS THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE FOR TODAY’S PARENTS. WITH INSIGHTS ON SCREEN TIME FROM RESEARCHERS, INPUT FROM KIDS & TEENS, THIS BOOK IS PACKED WITH SOLUTIONS FOR HOW TO START AND SUSTAIN PRODUCTIVE FAMILY TALKS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY AND IT’S IMPACT ON OUR MENTAL WELLBEING.  

ORDER HERE
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