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Addictive Design vs Addicted Child


Social media


By Michael Hawton

11th November, 2021

Here are the facts about the most popular social media platforms and online games your child will soon be or is currently using.

  • They are run by profit-making companies, so they want customers to stay on their platform, or continue to play their game, downloading special offers to unlock more levels.

  • A key feature of the design of these platforms is a concept called 'stickiness'. The 'stickiness' of a platform is based on addictive design. That is, they are designed to sustain a user's attention and offer actual or perceived rewards for continuing to use the platform.

  • Algorithms drive users toward previous-interest web pages, accounts or games. These algorithms are designed to funnel users towards subject material, consistent with previous searches and likes.

  • The addictive design of social media applications and online games can be stronger than a child's ability to control their use. That's what addictive design is; it aims to drive users towards more use.

Recent leaked research by Facebook (the owner of Instagram) showed that 1/3 of young girls who had problems with their body – not only felt worse after using Instagram - they also felt compelled to go back and keep using it.

Not all children feel compelled to keep using something that’s bad for them. However, a sizeable minority are susceptible to being drawn into tech echo chambers.

Children, by definition, are dependent in nature. In other words, they are more affected by what their parents allow them to see than are adults themselves. The word tech ‘addicted’ is widely misused at present. Still, the reason we need restrictions on children’s use of social media apps and online games are to protect children from practices that are not good for them.

The dictionary definition of addiction is:



the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity.
"he committed the offence to finance his drug addiction"

While it may not be appropriate to label a child as ‘addicted’ to technology, as they
may still be in a development stage, we can however highlight the way addictive
design creates ‘habit-forming” behaviours in children.  Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School who wrote the guidelines for screen times for the American Academy of Pediatrics says of addictive design “I find that especially problematic when it comes to young kids because young kids have no meta-awareness about when a technology is trying to lure them in”. In addition, she highlights the other issues around technology use, such as the impact on a child’s sleep habits, development, and development of self-regulation.

If your child is having trouble detaching him/herself from a tech application, it could be he is at the beginning of a journey of over-use. Early-stage ‘over-use’ by your child at the expense of a more balanced life (e.g., socialising with his family or having face-to-face time with friends) might be something you can nip in the bud by developing a contract with your child. My colleague, Jocelyn Brewer, has some good tips about developing a family tech agreement you can find here.

The amount of unsupervised tech-time parents allow comes down to how much any parent wants their child’s time consumed by their devices and social media applications. There’s a reason it’s called addictive design. Knowing that those platforms are designed to be addictive
doesn’t mean your child will become addicted.

However, it is important that parents take steps to educate their child about how these applications are designed; it is also important that we discuss with our children the circumstances under which these tech giants will come into your home.

I have developed online parent courses on child anxiety - and how parents can find themselves too often accommodating their child’s anxiety. To find out more about the online webinars for Parents to help manage anxiety and build resilience in children and young people see the links below for an age-appropriate course.

No Scaredy Cats - for children aged 2-12 years-old: CLICK HERE.

Resilience In Our Teens - for teens aged 13-18 years-old: CLICK HERE.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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