The Sneaky Science Behind Your Kid’s Tech Obsession
If you’ve got kids, you know that “screen time” is a big deal. If your child isn’t playing a game, they’re texting friends. If they aren’t scrolling through Instagram, they’re binging Netflix. So what’s the story behind this obsession with technology? Contrary to what your kids might tell you, it’s not simply “just because.” Instead, there’s a whole lot of science going on to keep your kids attached to their phones, computers, and other devices.
It may surprise you to know, but the human brain doesn’t actually stop developing until the early- to mid-twenties. In fact, the portion of the brain that is slowest to develop is the section related to impulse control. This means that, scientifically speaking, your teenagers physically lack the ability to control their every whim. Unfortunately for your phone bill, tech companies are fully aware of this.
If you’ve ever watched Netflix or even YouTube, you’ll notice a little feature called “auto play.” This means that the next video in the lineup will play without you having to lift a finger to tap or click “next.” This feature plays into the lack of impulse control because it simply doesn’t require any control at all. Instead of exercising self-discipline, teens are encouraged to continue doing nothing and just keep watching.
Once upon a time a man named Pavlov trained his dog to exhibit certain behaviors. The dog would hear the ding of a bell and would start to salivate because every time he heard that sound, he was given a tasty treat.
The same happens with kids and technology. Notifications from social media and texting apps ping onto the screen, indicating that something is waiting for them, whether a message from a friend or some validation from an internet stranger. These feel-good moments become habit-forming, even addictive, so every time that notification pops up, your child needs to scratch that itch and check it. In their mind, the ding of a notification signifies an upcoming rush of dopamine from a like, a new video from their favorite YouTuber, or an emoji from their crush.
Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram work with several algorithms that determine what pops up in your news feed. These formulas consider your previous interactions with others as well as what you spend most of your time looking at on the site. However, these sites rely on a system called “variable rewards.” This means that what pops up can seem quite random. Your notification may be for a new video, a like on your photo, or a new follower. You won’t know exactly what is going to show up, so you keep returning to check. The algorithms keep users guessing and continually checking for more.
Think of social media like a slot machine: you might win, or you might not. But each time you pull the lever, or tap the reload button, you’re getting the feeling that this could be it. However, the algorithms used by certain sites are created to specifically keep you – or your kids – on the app as long as possible. After all, that’s how these companies make their money. So while your feed and notifications may feel random, they’ve been carefully crafted by the algorithm to show users whatever is most likely to keep that user looking at their screen for longer.
While technology can seem counterproductive for your kids’ lives, understanding a few of the sneaky science tricks that tech companies use can help you better understand your child’s obsession with it. If you’re looking for ways to combat this obsession, have an open conversation with your child to figure out what it is they get from technology. This will help you devise a plan to help them overcome any over-use of technology that may be inhibiting their social, family, or educational life.