Three ways app developers keep kids glued to the screen and what to do about it

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From learning numbers to learning how to brush your teeth, it seems there’s a kids app for everything.

Recent US statistics indicate that more than half of toddlers and three-quarters of preschoolers access regularly mobile app. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s been an explosion of options in the app market to keep kids engaged.

These apps certainly provide fun interactive experiences, not to mention good educational content in many cases. They are also very good at keeping young minds engaged. So what’s the problem ?

You have just read it: they are very good for keeping young minds engaged, so much so that kids may find it hard to put their devices down. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to snatch your child from their device, read on.

What is persuasive design?

Though there is national recommendations To help guide parents through the minefield of children’s screen time, there’s a hugely under-recognized piece of this puzzle – and that’s how the technology itself is designed.

Compelling design refers to strategies that attract and hold our attention. It’s something both kids and adults experience (usually unknowingly) while scrolling through social media or fighting the urge to play another game of Candy Crush.

If persuasive design can influence the screen-use behaviors of adults – who have supposedly developed skills of regulation and self-control – then toddlers and children don’t stand a chance. This aspect of the screen time debate is rarely examined with the seriousness it deserves.

To find out how persuasive apps for kids can be, we applied a well-established model of persuasive design to 132 of the most popular early childhood apps downloaded by Australian families through the Android and iOS app stores. We have found three key ways persuasive design features keep kids coming back.

1. Motivation

A key concept of persuasive design is tapping into children’s emotions to ensure they stay motivated to interact with the app. This is done by:

  • provide pleasure through rewards. Children are still developing their ability to a belated thank you. They are more likely to seek an immediate reward of lesser value than to wait for a reward of greater value. In the context of apps, they are likely to be motivated by instant rewards that bring happiness or excitement. The apps we tested offered far more instant rewards (such as sparkles, cheers, fireworks, virtual toys, and stickers) than delayed rewards.

  • induce empathy. Just as adults seek out positive feedback through social media likes, kids love receiving social feedback from characters they look up to (think Hello Kitty or Bluey). Children often attribute the human feelings and intentions to fictional characters and can form emotional ties with them. While this can help foster a positive learning experience, it can also be exploited for commercial gain. For example, character empathy is at stake when Hello Kitty stares sadly at a shiny locked food box that can only be opened in the paid version of the app.

2. Capacity

No one wants to play a game that’s too hard to win. Ability features provide children with continuous instruction to reduce the likelihood of disengagement.

YouTube/Budge Studios

One way to increase a child’s sense of mastery is repetition. Many early childhood apps include rote learning, like making the same cookie over and over again with the Cookie Monster. By including tasks that are quick to learn and repeating them, app designers are probably trying to take advantage of growing children. sense of autonomy helping them to “win” on their own.

So what’s the deal with that? While repetition is great for learning (especially for developing the mind), removing any requirement for parental help can encourage more solitary use of apps. It can also be more difficult for parents to engage in social game with their child.

3. Prompts

Commercial prompts were the most common trigger we found in early childhood apps, especially free apps. They have one main objective: to generate income.

Prompts include pop-up advertisements, offers to double or triple rewards in exchange for viewing an advertisement, or prompting the user to make in-app purchases. While adults may see prompts for what they are, children are much less likely to understand the underlying business intent.

So what can be done?

There’s no doubt that some of these features in moderation help maintain a base level of app engagement. But our research clearly shows that many persuasive design features exist simply to serve business models.

We need to have more conversations about ethical design that doesn’t capitalize on children’s developmental vulnerabilities. This includes app developer accountability.

The market for early childhood apps is vast. Parents often won’t have enough information on how to navigate, or enough time to evaluate each app before downloading it for their child. However, there are several ways for parents to gain the upper hand:

  • talk to your child after they play with an app. Ask questions like “what did you learn?” or “what did you like the most?”.

  • play the app with your child and decide if it’s worth keeping. Are they smothered by rewards? Are there many distracting prompts? Is it too repetitive to be truly educational?

  • Look for the “teacher approved” (on Play Store) when considering an app, or check reviews from trusted sources such as Children and Media Australia and common sense media before downloading.

Ideally, your child should lead the game, actively solve problems, and should be able to complete their time on an app relatively easily.

Common design tricks used to monetize app usage by young children, study finds

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About Stuart M. McFarland

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