Persuasive Design and Growing Brains: Why It Can Be So Hard to Unplug

“I am going to be screen free tonight!” I say to myself with conviction. I am already looking forward to a calm and focused evening. “Anything I need to see on my phone can wait until tomorrow,” I think with confidence.

I place my phone on the counter and open the back door to greet my kids coming home from after school activities. They pile in the back entryway and explode into the kitchen, eager to move on from, “Hello” to a project in the basement.

On my way to join them downstairs I hear a subtle but distinct “bzzzzzz” from the countertop. A text! From my brother! Delightful. Just a quick text back and I will join my kids downstairs. Once the text is sent I notice a little red notification hovering just above my email.

Time passes.

Well, now I’ve refreshed most of my apps and succeeded in sending the hilarious GIF my brother sent me to my entire family.

More time passes.

I finally put my phone back down on the counter and walk downstairs where an entire Lego castle has been created, turrets and all. “You finished this so quickly!” I remark before realizing that they had spent nearly a half-hour putting on the finishing touches while I was scrolling upstairs.

I resolve that tomorrow I will put my phone in a lockbox. In the words of Tristan Harris, when it comes to phones, “Proximity is destiny.”

The Power of Persuasive Design

Since we started studying the impact of media on children, we have been guided by the philosophy that, “Digital media are not inherently good or bad; they are powerful. The good or bad depends upon how we use them.”

This is still true. Yet how they are designed has a lot to do with how we use them. Understanding the ways in which devices are deliberately designed to grab and hold our attention is the first step towards more mindful use.

Young child scrolling through cell phone app

Children and Persuasive Design

It is hard enough for us grown ups to put our phones down (a recent tech survey found that adults check their phones 80 times a day).  Yet researcher and doctor Jenny Radeski argues that children’s and teens’ developing brains are potentially even more susceptible to “persuasive design” because the part of their brain that helps them manage impulses and filter out distractions is still under construction.

Let’s check out just a few design elements that grab and keep the attention of the youngest among us:

Sounds, Buzzes, Scene Changes, and Music

Children are born into the world with a strong reactive attention system. Located deep within their brains, this system alerts them to and helps them focus on sudden changes or novelty in their environments. This is a good thing! This has helped keep children alive for hundreds of years. Just imagine how important it is for a toddler to immediately notice and respond to a snake crawling its way.

The challenge is that digital technologies introduce a lot of novelty and sudden changes in a toddler’s environment. Quick scene changes, loud noises or changes in music, vibrant colors, and visual stimuli all ignite a child’s “orientation response,” triggered by their hard wired reactive attention system. Children’s focused attention system, on the other hand, is part of their executive control networks which is still growing and developing throughout early childhood. We use our focused attention system when we purposefully filter out distractions to focus on the task at hand. Because it is still under construction, young children are more likely to be pulled away from focus by their reactive system.

Virtual rewards

Kids love stickers, points, buttons, candy and pretty much any other kind of reward that comes their way. While some learning technologies uses virtual rewards sparingly and carefully to motivate kids, too many dole them out at every move or interaction. What do virtual rewards look like? Everything from sound effects to virtual coins to virtual stickers delight children and leave them wanting more. Warren Buckleitner of Children’s Technology Review encourages parents to try to avoid apps and toys that operate under this kind of “smother mode.”

Trusted characters

We’ve known for a long time that children learn better from characters (and people) that they know and trust. This is why children are much more likely to learn and remember a lesson from Elmo than from a brand new muppet. When it comes to educational and pro-social content, this strategy is wonderful! Unfortunately too many electronic toys use familiar characters to draw children in regardless of whether or not the content is actually good for them. Young children are not likely to greet trusted characters with skepticism even if they are being used to sell products or push poor content.


Videos, apps, and games are designed to never-be-done or immediately grab our attention for what is on next. This is especially challenging for young children whose impulse control is still growing and developing. Before parents can step in to turn off YouTube, the next video is already rolling. “Just one more!” is never just one more.

Teens and Persuasive Design

Buzz! Ping!

Just because teens are older does not mean that they are not susceptible to habit-forming persuasive design. Our brains actually reward us for seeking out new or novel information. These “seeking circuits” are ignited when we feel the buzz of our phones in our pockets or the ping of an incoming text. Our entire brain shifts into seeking mode. “I wonder who that is? I wonder what they want?” It takes a lot of impulse control to quiet the seeking brain and focus on the task at hand.

Intermittent reinforcement

App designers know that if we receive rewards every time we do something that it has a diminishing impact over time. Instead, most apps are designed to deliver rewards using variable reinforcement. In other words, after I post a picture to Instagram the algorithm might hold back some “likes” for a few refreshes and then deliver them in more satisfying cluster.


If the seeking brain delivers a reward from checking a text message, you better believe that teenagers’ brains receive a double dose when they see that the message is from a friend. Peers ignite reward circuits in the brain for good reason! But it can make it especially difficult for teens to unplug from the hopped up reward of seeking out social connection online.

The Good or Bad Depends Upon How We Use Them

This isn’t to say that none of us have any control around technology. It’s also clear that persuasive design can be used for good! Using trusted characters and carefully crafted rewards can keep children engaged in learning media. Teens experience the reward of online collaboration and problem solving. Unfortunately, too many apps and toys aren’t using persuasive design with kids’ health and development in mind.

Persuasive design might draw us in, but there are things we can do to resist and manage the urge to look, scroll, press, and swipe. Try these four things:

  • Metacognition

    The golden rule of influence is, “We are the most vulnerable when we don’t know we are being influenced.” In other words, as children get older they benefit from learning how technology is designed and how that shapes our responses to them. Instead of saying, “Put that thing down! It’s bad for you!” we might try, “Do you know why it is so hard for us to put technology down? Let’s find out.” Start asking questions like: Who is making these tools? For what purpose? Who benefits? How might it get in the way of what is good for us?

  • From consumers to creators

    Children and youth who learn how to make media have a more sophisticated sense of design, authorship, construction and audience. These core media literacy skills are essential cognitive scaffolding for their understanding of themselves as an audience as well. Look for maker spaces, production studios, and coding projects that integrate mentorship and media literacy into their programming.

  • Be a media mentor

    Good media mentors know how to set limits, coach, explore, engage and teach mindful tech use. Learn three ways to get the most out of screen time with little kids and ways to get creative with children and technology.

  • Use tech support

    Just because we understand design and create media, doesn’t mean that we can always manage them by ourselves. Technology can be used to support healthier habits. Check out these apps that will help you and your kids look up from tech and towards each other more often.

  • Set limits and go old fashioned

    Taking tech breaks helps replenish and rejuvenate our executive function skills, making us more likely to be able to use them when we plug back in. Check out these screen time limits for kids and why teens need to rest and connect for digital wellbeing. Buy an alarm clock. Write letters. Take a day (or a few hours?) off. Go outside.

Want to do more to advocate for systems change and tech that prioritizes kids’ well being? Check out Common Sense Media’s new movement around ethical design.