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The Scientific Reason Why Kids Cannot Stop Using Gadgets
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  • We’ve all been there before. We tell our kids to put down their gadget or stop playing video games for just a few hours, only to be met with resistance. Your child’s obsession with technology – may it be video games or gadgets  isn’t entirely his fault. The ingredients in social media, video games, apps, and other digital products are carefully engineered to keep kids coming back for more. While researchers are still trying to discover whether kids (and parents) can be addicted to technology, some computer scientists are revealing their secrets for keeping us hooked.

    Resisting the urge to check your phone or play another episode of a TV series you’re watching should be a simple matter of self-control. However, according to Tristan Harris, a computer scientist who founded the "Time Well Spent" movement, and Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, we humans are totally overpowered. Features such as app notifications, autoplay — even "likes" and messages that self-destruct — are scientifically proven to compel us to watch/check in/respond right now or feel that we're missing something really important.

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    Behind the apps, games, and social media is a whole crew of folks whose job is to make their products feel essential. Most teens care deeply about peer validation, for example. So it makes sense that friends' feedback on social media — both the positive and the negative — would tug at you until you satisfy your curiosity. You have a phone in your pocket, so why not check now?

    Over the years, many are calling for more research on the impact of technology use on young users. These studies can help developers create what Tristan Harris calls "ethically designed" products with built-in features that cue us to give tech a rest.

    How to manage your and your children's technology use

    Here are the key features designed to keep you hooked and suggestions how to resist each one.

    Autoplay

    Most notable on Netflix and Facebook, autoplay is the feature that makes videos continue to stream even after they're over. Tristan Harris calls this the "bottomless bowl" phenomenon. With a refilling bowl, people eat 73 percent more calories. Or they binge-watch way too many movies.

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    What to do: Autoplay is typically on by default, so you have to turn it off. The feature can usually be found in the app's account Settings. Here's how to turn it off in Netflix.

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    Notifications

    Studies show that push notifications — those little pings and prods you get to check your apps — are habit-forming. They align an external trigger (the ping) with an internal trigger (a feeling of boredom, uncertainty, insecurity). Every app uses them, but some, such as TikTok and YouTube, have discovered that when notifications tells us to do something, such as "Watch Sally's new video!" or "See who liked your post!" we respond immediately. These calls to action not only interrupt us, they cause stress.

    What to do: Turn them off. Most devices have a Settings section where you can turn off notifications. You should also be able to turn off notifications in the app's settings.

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    Randomness

    If you knew that Instagram updated your feed at precisely 3 p.m. every day, that's when you'd check in, right? But that won't keep you glued to your phone. Instead, social media companies use what's called "variable rewards." This technique keeps us searching endlessly for our "prize," such as who friended us, who liked our posts, and who updated their status. (Not coincidentally, it's also the method slot machines use to keep people pulling the lever.) Since you never know what's going to come up, you keep coming back for more.

    What to do: Turn off app notifications (usually found in your phone's Settings but also in the apps' settings themselves). Schedule a timer to go off at a certain time every day and check your feeds then.

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    In-app purchases

    Free games such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush lure you in by promising cheap thrills, then offering in-app purchases that let you level up, buy currency to use in the game, and more. But the real sneaky stuff is how companies keep you playing — and buying. The more you use the game and the more in-app purchases you make, the more companies learn about you. Thanks to games that connect to Facebook, they also know who your friends are. That lets them tailor specific products to you at the precise times you're most likely to buy.

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    What to do: Spring for the full, paid version of games. They're cheaper  and safer  in the long run.

    Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out its ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org and sign up for its newsletter to read more articles like this.

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