April 24, 2018

Is Your Child Being "Brain Hacked"?

Paul Smolen MD FAAP
Semi Retired Pediatrician Charlotte, NC
Founder of the pediatric blog, docsmo.com, Portable Practical Pediatrics
Author of Can Doesn't Mean Should, Essential Knowledge for 21st Century Parents

Still not sure about if or when to get your children a smart phone or allow them access to social media? Tech expert Roger McNamee, an early investor in and advisor to Facebook, has an interesting perspective about the power these tech giants have over your children.   He introduced me to the term “brain hacking technologies" that he says were designed to maximize and sustain the attention of both you and your children. 

What is Brain Hacking?

Here's a link to Mr. McNamee’s full article in USA Today so you can read it for yourself, but these are three big themes from the article:

Point # 1: Facebook took its lead from the gambling industry, using their techniques to “addict” users to their content. Quoting from Mr. McNamee’s article, “Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google - most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary - produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long term.“

The companies running social media are in the business of grabbing your children’s attention and they have learned to do it very effectively. Many of today’s children are consumed by their smart phones, social media sites, and on-line chatting. You know this is true. Just go to any restaurant and watch older children. They are often more focused on texting and the chatter in cyberspace than engaged with the people sitting right in front of them. And it doesn't just happen when they are with their families - the same behavior occurs even when they are with friends. For this generation social interaction seems to be much safer and preferable digitally than face to face. Whether it be a video game, virtual athletics, a conversation with a friend, or flirting, social interaction seems to be happening for today’s children virtually - physically separated from the people they are interacting with. Children seem dependent on and addicted to their devices.

Point # 2: Big Internet companies like Google and Facebook know a lot about your children. Each word children choose to use on Facebook reveals information about their education, socioeconomic class, buying habits, favorite stores, wants, and desires. Knowing these things allows the tech companies to target children like a cruise missile closing in on its target. As your children’s wants and desires change, so does their data, changing the marketing campaigns social media giants direct at them. Your child’s online behavior allows the media giant to know what makes your children tick and to leverage that information to its own advantage.

Point #3: Once someone is addicted, an Internet company can manipulate that users moods with the newsfeed. Your child is having a day when they are angry at authority figures in their life?  We have a newsfeed for them that will justify and intensify those feelings. Your child is feeling depressed or sad one day?  Advertisers can take advantage of that by marketing products and services to them that will resonate with those feelings as well. The point is, once the addiction has occurred and the digital content supplier knows your children's motivations and interests, they become susceptible to manipulation, often by companies who wish to sell them something or influence them in some way. Not a good place for children to be.

Advice about managing your children's digital life

You can see that allowing your children unfettered access to digital devices (smart phones, computers, tablets etc.) is a serious decision you need to consider carefully. But also understand that you have a choice and ultimately, you are in control. In fact, I would say that you must be in control. What's the old expression, measure twice, cut once?  Once you grant your children free access to the online world, it will be very difficult to take it away. My advice?  Consider the decision to grant your children unchaperoned access to the Internet very carefully. I think you will find all these resources helpful: AAP screen guidelines for children Common Sense Media and a Charlotte based organization called Families Managing Media

to be continued