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The real danger for kids today isn’t technology — it’s psychology

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The unholy alliance of technology and psychology has created a mind-altering, destructive world for our kids.

Yesterday, Charlotte sat down beside me on the couch and put her head on my shoulder. “Mommy,” she began sweetly, “when I’m a teenager what grade will I get my phone in?”

From across the house her eagle-eared 12-year-old sister shouted, “NEVER! I don’t even have a phone, Charlotte. We’ll never get phones, even though all our friends have them, because Mom is soooo strict.”

Charlotte turned her face up to look at me, her wide blue eyes filling up with crocodile tears. “Is that true, Mommy?”

“Yes! Yes, it is. You will never have a cell phone until you go to college, and maybe even not then,” I responded unequivocally. I tried hard not to be gleeful about it, but I’m not sure I succeeded.

I’m not gleeful about my absolute ban on cell phones for my kids because I take joy out of depriving them of things they want. I’m gleeful because I know that cell phones — and the social media world they open up to kids — are the single most destructive threat facing children today, and I’m determined to protect my kids as much as possible.

Most parents don’t understand the extent of the threat, and as a result they often take the blame when their kids get sucked into the quicksand of technology. Medium recently published an article that teased out exactly why social media and video games are wreaking such havoc on kids, and the missing ingredient isn’t faltering family structures or bad parenting — it’s psychology.

What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

These parents have no idea that lurking behind their kids’ screens and phones are a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that captures kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. What these parents and most of the world have yet to grasp is that psychology  —  a discipline that we associate with healing  —  is now being used as a weapon against children.

The article is long but fascinating, as it delves into the evolution of persuasive technology, an idea dreamed up and perfected by a psychologist. The unabashed goal of persuasive technology is to alter the way humans think and behave, and tech companies have adopted this technology in order to drive sales and dominate the market … at the expense of the kids being literally reprogrammed.

I think it’s important to note that tech executes aren’t long-fingered misers cackling away in their lairs made of the gold and tears of youth. I highly doubt that any of them were trying to destroy the lives of the next generation. In fact, I believe that many of the leading tech executives really believe in increasing human connectivity. But by playing with the fire of persuasive technology, they’re burning a lot of kids.

I’m confident that the next decade will see a gradual restriction of Silicon Valley’s freedom to employ psychological techniques to change user behavior to benefit a company’s bottom line, especially as more and more parents wake up to the damaging effects smartphones and video games are having on their kids. In the meantime, I’ll protect my kids the best way I know how — by being the least cool, most strict Mom ever and never letting them have cell phones.

They’ll thank me later, probably. And even if they don’t, I sleep easier at night knowing my kids spent the day tormenting each other outside instead of being tormented in a virtual reality.

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