Psychology Helps Drive Our Screen Time

By Dan Nielsen
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

The Pew Research Center last week released results of a national survey on smartphone use.

It paints a disturbing picture of modern family life, a surrealist painting of missed and dysfunctional connections.

I envision a distorted Salvador Dali image of people ignoring each other, their eyes attached with Elmer’s Glue to giant phone screens, a random cat floating in mid-air, and a half-melted clock (perhaps to signify time spent playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds) off to the side.

The Pew survey suggests that most parents think their children are so distracted by smartphones that they don’t listen to mom and dad. The survey also suggests that more than half of teens believe the opposite is true — that their parents are so buried in their own screens that they don’t pay attention to what their kids are telling them.

Everyone in the family, it appears, has their eyes glued to a handheld LCD screen so closely that they lose track of what’s happening off-screen.

That reality, while troubling, reads like a success story for modern marketing techniques.

Entrepreneurs know that the internet is today’s gateway to profit. They follow the money and seek to generate income where it is available.

Massive audience is the underlying power of the internet. More eyes translates into more advertising clicks, more sales, more profit.

So online entrepreneurs chase eyes. Some use every marketing technique available — flashing colors, promises of unbelievable deals, headlines that grab, amusing video clips, even well-written and informative articles.

And all those various methods work — on enough people, at least, to make them worthwhile. None of those things are going away anytime soon.

But part of the internet marketing success story — perhaps call it collateral damage — is that teens and parents both sometimes pay more attention to internet-connected smartphones than to each other.

Human nature dictates that our minds focus on what interests us. The internet is filled with words and images that run the gamut from cats to physics, from tractors to financial advice. Search engines and apps provide virtual highways that deliver all this specialized information to us like parents spoon-feeding prune puree to infants. We can just sit and visually digest information without the complication of conversation.

The irresistible pull of customized information delivered via a smartphone screen is a fact of modern life.

Perhaps that’s even part of the plan. It turns out, according to an Associated Press article this month, that some tech companies employ psychologists specifically tasked with making online content so sticky that we (and our children) can’t turn away from it.

The article said a group of children’s advocates have asked the American Psychological Association to condemn the tech industry’s practice of using persuasive psychological techniques to pursue child audiences.

The group’s message cites research that links excessive use of social media and video games with depression and trouble in school. The group contends it is unethical for psychologists to participate in developing tactics that put the well-being of children at risk.

Skeptics say such research is inconclusive, the AP article said. And those skeptics note that psychologists have been involved in marketing and advertising for decades for a broad range of industries.

Psychology and marketing go hand-in-hand, from sugary breakfast cereals to canes that stand on their own.

It will be interesting to see if the group’s plea to the American Psychological Association goes anywhere.

Adults, though, are adults. We need to monitor our own internet usage. We need to take it upon ourselves to realize that psychological techniques most certainly are being employed to woo us. It’s up to us as consumers to decide how much time we want to spend glued to the screen.

Leave a comment