Intentional Tech Use: How Young People Can Build Immunity to Persuasive Design

Originally published on INTENTA DIGITAL.


I grew up with the internet. In high school, I regularly stayed up till three in the morning watching YouTube videos. This was normal among my peers—it was also normal to have trouble remembering things, no ability to make eye contact, and be diagnosed with depression. It was obvious to me at the time that these things were, at least to some degree, related to our digital habits.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Well, in the moment, it seemed fun. Somehow, it seemed fun even when my eyes were bloodshot, I had a headache, and I had barely left my room for a week. There was always another interesting thing to read, or watch, just a click away.

While modern digital technologies are powerful, and can have many benefits, some of the less positive effects are increasingly obvious: the eye damage, attention disorders, addictive behaviours, loss of social skills, even loss of a social fabric in which to practice those skills.

It is no accident that young people spend huge numbers of hours on digital media (with US teens averaging about 7.5 hours/day in 2019). Social media and video game companies carefully design their products to be as addictive as possible, because their business model usually depends on maximizing ‘time on device’ to generate data and ad revenue, or encourage in-game purchases. On top of that, there is the cumulative effect of millions of people competing to create the most eye-catching and engaging online content.

As a result, compulsive digital tech use is rampant. If this were confined only to video games, or clickbait sites, the solution would be simpler—complete avoidance would be an option. But pretty much everything on the internet can create unwanted habits, from email to database searching to blogs. It is possible to live without digital media—I did so for four years—but at present that approach limits one’s opportunities, and is not feasible or desirable for most people. Can we have the good things the internet provides, without the disruptive habits?

Until we create new cultural norms that restrict digital tech’s invasion of every aspect of life—or a digital paradigm that doesn’t aggressively leverage human psychology to keep people hooked—we need to help young people develop skills that enable individuals to take charge of their relationship with digital tech. Ways to build immunity to the nebulous thing variously referred to as habit-forming technology, ‘persuasive’ technology, or behaviour design.

The immunity-building regimen I have developed, through research and experimentation on myself and peers, involves three components:

  • Understanding how persuasive tech works, and the underlying motivations behind it, and how to recognise it in digital interfaces.
  • Practicing attention to one’s own digital habits, and how they are shaped by design.
  • Cultivating habits that facilitate intentional use of digital media.

Together, these three approaches can interrupt some of unconscious habits and habit-forming mechanisms through which tech use gets out of control.

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