Learn to spot three common ways technology keeps us hooked—and help your kids enjoy screen time without becoming screen captured.
It’s a bit of a paradox: as we learn more about the effects of screen time, it can feel harder—not easier—to know what kinds of boundaries to set for your kids. Even though there’s no shortage of expert options, it can still be difficult for parents to know when to introduce screens, and how much time to allow.
While age and time restrictions are important, perhaps the most critical factor to consider is the type of screen time. Certain screen activities can be positive, skill-building and entertaining for our kids, while others rely on manipulation to keep them coming back for more. Distinguishing between the two—healthy screen time and “screen capture”—can help ensure your kids are exposed to the benefits of tech, and not the mechanisms that can lead to screen obsession. Below, we explore three main screen capture tactics to look out for.
Whenever we scroll through our social feeds or browse on Amazon, we’re interacting with an algorithm—but what exactly is it? Simply put, an algorithm is a set of rules or steps that tells a computer how to do a certain task. A lot of shopping sites and social platforms use them to curate the content we see or make personalized recommendations for products we might like. That might seem harmless enough, but it’s important to keep in mind that the algorithms aren’t just there to make your life easier.
When they serve you personalized content, social platforms and e-commerce sites are using predictive algorithms designed to keep you scrolling or shopping. They’re subtly manipulating our experience by giving us what we want.
Kids are especially susceptible to these kinds of algorithms because they don’t have the same impulse control that we do. As adults, we have some awareness of the mechanisms at play—but our kids might not know when a platform is trying to pull them in.
Algorithms have even more potential to result in screen capture in the absence of “stopping cues.” According to social psychologist Adam Alter, older “mediums” have natural breaking points, like chapters in a book. When we reach the end of a chapter, we set the book down. Social media, streaming services and online games often don’t have a “natural” point for us to turn them off, meaning we could continue to discover new, captivating content indefinitely.
And aside from keeping them screen captured, algorithms can pose other dangers to kids: One recent study found that toddlers have a 45% chance of clicking through to inappropriate content in as few as ten recommended videos on YouTube. Because of the sheer volume of videos on these platforms—and because algorithms don’t have the same judgement humans do, there’s a risk that appropriate videos could give way to mature content. So when you’re assessing your kids’ screen activities, consider whether there’s an algorithm designed to draw them in. These are situations when time limits and close supervision are helpful to avoid screen capture.
Likes, comments, views and re-tweets: these are common “vanity metrics,” and they’re fairly standard features across social media platforms. When we post something online, and others react to it, we experience a sense of social validation. In this way, social platforms exploit our innate desire to belong. Recent research has given us deeper insight into how these vanity metrics can affect our brains. A notification from a like or comment gives us a hit of dopamine in much the same way gambling does. If you’ve ever experienced the irresistible urge to check your phone after posting on Instagram, you’ve experienced the pull of the vanity metric.
While there is a correlation between social media and a rising instance of depression and anxiety among teens and adults, ultimately, the relationship between these platforms and mental health is complex. It’s hard to say with certainty if they are to blame for the recent uptick in mental health issues, but it’s safe to say that vanity metrics are purposely designed for screen capture. Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, has admitted to this openly. So when it comes to our kids, screen time is healthier without the vanity metrics.
Another less obvious mechanism for screen capture lies in goals.
While setting goals and working to achieve them is generally a positive thing—some platforms use our natural motivation to reach milestones as a way to keep us glued to our devices.
According to Dr. Alter, children are especially sensitive to goals, so when a game or app dangles an “achievement” in front of them, it’s even harder to walk away. Think here of the allure of snap streaks on Snapchat. The platform tracks when kids exchange messages with friends for consecutive days, creating an impulse to stay active on the app. According to former Google Product Manager, Tristan Harris, the urge to maintain a snap streak is so strong that teens are experiencing anxiety when they go on vacation. They’re even sharing their passwords with friends to keep their snap streak going on their behalf.
When it comes to goals as a mechanism for screen capture, it’s important to distinguish between healthy aspirations and arbitrary ones. Unlocking a level in an online game, for example, might mean your kid is acquiring new problem-solving skills, whereas maintaining a snap streak means very little outside of the app itself.
Learning to spot screen capture
When it comes to screen time, we need to be asking the right questions—and that means looking at what kind of activities our kids are doing on their devices. After all, your kids are probably better off with a full hour of healthy screen time than ten minutes of screen capture. If you’re in doubt, try asking these questions:
- Are they on a platform where content auto-plays?
- Are they encouraged to click recommended links?
- Does the platform promote likes, comments or other social validation metrics?
- Does it offer incentives or rewards for arbitrary tasks?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, you might be in screen capture territory. In these cases, closer supervision and more stringent time limits will help you—and your kids—stay in control of your tech consumption.
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Image Credits: PeopleImages / iStockphoto LP, Tim Gouw / Unsplash, Rob Christian Crosby / Death to Stock Photo