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Children’s online time should be public health issue, says report

Science & technology | Published:

SnapChat streaks is among the features criticised by a report from the 5Rights Foundation.

Child using a laptop (Peter Byrne/PA)

Children and young people are being encouraged to spend longer online by “persuasive design” which should be considered a public health issue, a new report claims.

The tactic, which encourages the extended use of apps and websites, is used to collect children’s data for commercial gain, but it has an impact on the child’s social, mental and physical development, according to The Disrupted Childhood Report.

The report, released today by the 5Rights Foundation, which advocates for children online, says unless action is taken the “creativity and development of a generation” is in danger of being stunted and sets out 24 recommendations to combat the problems experienced.

The publication comes as the amount of time children spend on devices is already under scrutiny.

At the E3 video gaming conference in Los Angeles earlier this week, discussions focused on whether it was the responsibility of developers or parents to moderate consumption.

Baroness Kidron, founder and chair of 5Rights Foundation, said: “The unfettered use of persuasive design practices is a symbol of the tech sector’s cavalier disregard for childhood. Children urgently need a better deal.

“It is hard to overestimate the importance of digital devices in a child’s life, but there must be a balance between what technology gives young people and what it takes away.”

Social media posts demanding attention
(Yui Mok/PA)

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It says that children struggle to understand that they pay for “free” services with “the currency of personal data”, and a company receives more data the longer a user is engaged.

Examples of persuasive design include autoplay, infinite feeds, attention-grabbing notifications and features built around rewards – such as getting a like, heart or comment.

One feature criticised is Snapchat’s streaks which shows how long an exchange with a single other person has been going on for with a flame emoji and a number count. Breaking a streak is “viewed as an indictment of a friendship” so builds up a cycle of obligation to encourage repeated visits to Snapchat.

Even seeing the “typing bubbles” of a reply can act as an anticipation trigger and keep a user engaged with a service they might otherwise choose to leave.

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A Snapchat spokesperson said Snapstreaks are “designed to be light-hearted and fun”.

“We do not employ design techniques to encourage compulsive or addictive behaviour,” they said. “Snapstreaks are our way to allow for friendships to deepen over time, just like real life.

“This is a nuance of friendship that is ignored in the majority of social digital products.”

Snapchat
(Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Among the recommendations are calls for information about a service’s design to be made available, making it easier to log off completely, have a notification blocker and a redesign of endless feeds.

5Rights Foundations also wants a change in government policy which would see persuasive design modules added to computer studies lessons at school and computer science degree courses.

Publication of the report comes just after a video games expert spoke about the responsibilities parents should shoulder in monitoring how much time is spent playing online games.

Addressing the leading video games convention E3, Piers Harding-Rolls from IHS Markit said developers, including those behind the popular Fortnite, were being considerate of young players.

But he added that a “major part” of sensible use needed to come from parents.

Fortnite's floor space at E3 2018
Fortnite’s floor space at E3 2018 – (Martyn Landi/PA)

“Inevitably with popular games which are a hit with younger gamers, these concerns are raised,” he told the conference in Los Angeles.

“The fact is, Fortnite is hugely popular with male tweens and teenagers and its strong penetration means it is being played a lot as a result.

“However, Fortnite is not exploitative of its players, does not employ loot boxes and monetises through cosmetic items.

“I think (Fortnite maker) Epic Games are cognisant of their audience and those considerations have been employed when designing the game.

“Like any activity, moderation is the key and a major part of the responsibility of managing time spent gaming must rest with the parents or guardians.”

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