Social media giants are employing “unethical” psychologists to keep children hooked online for hours on end, industry experts have warned.
Fifty psychologists in the US have penned an open letter saying their profession is being used “to manipulate children for profit”.
The letter said the “persuasive design” of social networks and video games was keeping children glued to the point that studies now showed it was affecting their mental wellbeing and academic attainment.
The signatories called on the American Psychological Association, which represents the profession in the US, to condemn psychologists’ role in developing such techniques.
The open letter comes as The Telegraph has launched the Duty of Care campaign calling for more stringent regulation of social media networks, in order to protect children from harm.
In recent years a number of former social media employees have criticised the methods the networks use to keep people scrolling.
Justin Rosenstein, who first built Facebook’s iconic ‘Like’ button in 2007, has since described the feature as creating “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that have helped create “a problem at a civilisation scale”.
The 35-year-old has now banned himself from certain social networks, such as Snapchat, which he compares to heroin.
The creator of the “pull to refresh” feature, Loren Brichter, has also expressed regret over his innovation and called it “addictive”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham Trent, who specialises in addiction, told The Telegraph that social media and video game companies had a duty of care to the young people using their products.
“There is nothing unethical about using psychologists,” he said. “But what is unethical is when you have a product that is consumptive and causes a problem in a minority of people and you do nothing about it.
“There is a fine line between customer enhancement and exploitation. Anything were you are deliberately trying to get every penny out of a person can be seen as exploitative.”
He said that teengers and children were particularly susceptible when it came to developing problems with overuse.
“Children’s brains are still developing and when young people do things they find it more exciting,” added Dr Griffith.
The signatories of the US letter said they published it “to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games”.
Their main concern was that psychologists were helping to develop “persuasive design” techniques that exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology to keep people scrolling and playing.
The longer people use social media, the more they can be advertised to. With video games, the more gamers play and become invested the more likely they are to spend money on microtransactions in those games.
The letter said these techniques “encourage children’s excessive use of social media [and] video games”.
It added that “such design capitalises on children’s developmental vulnerabilities” such as fear of rejection and need for social acceptance, to which children were particularly susceptible.
The letter cited research that showed that girls who spend more time using social media or smartphones were at greater risk of depression.
It also said that the same techniques in video games were contributing to boys playing for hours on end to the detriment of their academic and employment prospects.
The signatories warned: “The great majority of parents have no idea that the social media and video games used by children are developed by psychologists and other experts who use advanced behavior change techniques to pull kids into these platforms and keep them there as long as possible.”
The letter added: “The APA (American Psychological Association) has not yet addressed how psychologists and their behavior change tools are used by the tech industry to manipulate children for profit.”