hook kids to screens

How app developers hook kids to screens and what to do about it

These days, there appears to be an app for almost everything, from teaching children to count to teaching them proper oral hygiene.

According to recent data, more than half of toddlers and three-quarters of preschoolers in the United States regularly use mobile apps. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that the market for apps for kids has exploded with options.

These apps undeniably provide engaging interactive experiences, and in many cases, they also provide valuable educational content. They are also very good at capturing the attention of young people. Which begs the question: What's the catch?

You've just read about how effective they are at capturing young people's attention; in fact, some children find it difficult to put down their electronic devices. This article will explain why it is so difficult to get your child to put down his or her electronic device.

To put it another way, how would you define persuasive design?

Even though there are national guidelines to help parents deal with the complicated issue of how much time their kids spend in front of a screen, the design of the technology is often overlooked.

"Persuasive design" refers to techniques that successfully capture and hold our attention. Not only children understand when it comes to scrolling through social media or resisting the urge to play another round of Candy Crush.

If persuasion design can influence screen-use behaviors in adults, who are thought to have more developed regulatory skills and self-control, then children and toddlers have no chance. This aspect of the screen time debate is rarely given the attention it deserves.

We examined 132 of the most popular early childhood apps downloaded by Australian families from the Android and iOS app stores using a well-established model of persuasive design to determine the extent to which these apps can influence young minds. We discovered three key persuasive design elements that keep kids coming back for more.


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Causal Interactions

It is necessary to appeal to children's emotions in order to keep them interested in and motivated to use the app over time. To achieve this, we will:

Providing satisfaction via a reward system Children's ability to delay gratification is still developing. They are more likely to pursue an immediate, lower-value reward rather than wait for a higher-value reward. The instant gratification they get from using an app is probably what keeps them interested. In the apps we looked at, instantaneous reinforcement (such as sparkles, cheers, fireworks, virtual toys, and stickers) was far more common than long-term reinforcement.

arousing sympathy Children, like adults, enjoy social validation from characters they admire in the form of "likes" on social media (think Hello Kitty or Bluey). Children have a tendency to imbue fictional characters with human emotions and motivations, which can lead to emotional investment. While this has the potential to improve students' educational experiences, it could also be used for financial gain. Hello Kitty shows compassion for the character when she sees a shiny, locked box of food that can only be accessed through the paid version of the app.


People do not want to play games with a low chance of winning. The likelihood of children becoming disinterested is reduced due to the instructional consistency provided by ability features.

Repetition can help a child feel more capable. Cookie Monster, like many educational apps for young children, teaches children to make the same cookie over and over. App designers are likely appealing to children's growing sense of autonomy by including tasks that are simple to learn and repeating them.

So, what makes that unacceptable? While drill and practice are important for learning, especially for young minds, not having to rely on a parent for assistance may lead to more independent app use. It can also make it difficult for parents to play social games with their children.

Action Requests

We discovered that commercial prompts were the most common source of in-app purchases in apps for young children, particularly free ones. Their main goal is to generate revenue.

Advertisements that appear without the user's permission, in-app offers to increase the user's reward for watching an advertisement, and other similar prompts fall into this category. Young children are much less likely than adults to identify prompts as advertisements.

As a result, what options do we have?

It is true that using some of these features keeps users fundamentally engaged with the app on occasion. But our research shows that many design elements that are convincing only exist to help business models.

There is a need for discussions about ethical design that does not exploit children's vulnerabilities at different stages of development. Mobile application developers must be held accountable.

The app market for young children has enormous potential. It is common for parents to lack the knowledge and time to thoroughly evaluate each app before allowing their child to use it. There are, however, ways for parents to gain an advantage, such as by having a conversation with their child following app use. "What did you learn from this experience?" and "What did you enjoy the most about it?" are good places to start.

Bottom Line

You and your child should decide if the app is a good fit before purchasing it. Are the benefits becoming too much for them? How many competing prompts can you ignore? Do you think there is too much repetition for real learning to take place?

Your child should be able to end app use without difficulty and should take the initiative during play.

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