Media Psychology, Ethics and Persuasive Design

Wayne Warburton

Wayne Warburton

Wayne Warburton, PhD
Macquarie University

One issue for media psychologists is that media and technology industries are sometimes driven by different motivators than are most of the psychologists who study them and work with them. Notably, most media and technology entities are for-profit organizations who must compete successfully in a crowded marketplace to be profitable, and sometimes simply to survive. While such organizations should behave ethically in their businesses, the need to be profitable is a key driver of corporate behavior. Media psychologists in academia are rarely subject to such economic forces, and they are typically more driven by an imperative to understand the ways in which media, technology and their users interact to foster best practice in managing the digital world, and do this within psychology’s own ethical framework.

In recent times, one area in which the nexus between media psychology, ethics and industry practice has been discussed is in the use of ‘persuasive design’ (also known as persuasive technology) – the use of psychology principles in digital product design to maximize user engagement and time with those products. Central to this discussion is the time element – those who design social media platforms, online apps and games, and other online interfaces, need users to spend as much time as possible using their products in order to maximize advertising revenue and thus profitability. The problem, of course, is the point at which this becomes ‘too much’ time, and thus detrimental to consumers.

My own view is that one role of psychologists is to help society as a whole manage the increasingly digital world adaptively through championing a ‘healthy media diet’ (Warburton, 2012) – one that embraces the positive benefits of a digital world while minimizing any potential negative impact, particularly for children and youth. For me, the principles of such an approach are very similar to those one would use for a food diet – moderation in amount, aim for more content that is educational, prosocial and skill-building than content that is antisocial, incorrect or developmentally unhelpful (much like the food pyramid), and have regard to a child’s age and developmental stage. When it comes to persuasive design and healthy media use, the issue that seems most salient is how it may impact moderation in amount.

There are differing views on how much recreational screen media use is a healthy amount; however more recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines discourage digital media use before 18 months, guided low use from 18-24 months, and up to an hour a day of guided screen use for 2-5 year olds (AAP, 2016a). For school-aged children, a previous recommendation of two or less hours per day of recreational screen use has been replaced by a recommendation that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child, as well as the whole family (AAP, 2016b). While the latter recommendations do not give a numerical threshold, it is clear from recent unpublished data gathered by my research team that most Australian professionals who work with children believe that recent average daily recreational screen media use figures (e.g., 4 hrs 26 min for 8-12 year olds; 6 hrs 40 min for 13-18 year olds; Common Sense Media, 2015) far exceed their conceptualization of moderate use.

Evidence is emerging that patterns of high screen use are not simply caused by people choosing to engage more with digital media, but also by the deliberate design of digital platforms to elicit high levels of use to keep users actively engaged for as long a time as possible. Relevant design features include motivating use through appealing to areas of psychological vulnerability, minimizing cognitive effort during use, providing frequent prompts and triggers, autoplay features, random rewards and other features that engage brain reward systems, and fostering investment through in-app purchases. Some platforms also create a ‘persuasion profile’ that identifies areas of vulnerability for each user and produces an individualized program of content based on those vulnerabilities. The website of California tech company Boundless Mind tells potential customers that “neuroscience has shown us that habits are programmable, and data has shown us that each person requires their own unique program” and at the time of writing has a pop-up noting “Psst… We’re releasing an AI tool designed to get user’s [sic] hooked on returning to your app.”

Interestingly, much of the evidence for persuasive design is coming from industry insiders. Ramsay Brown, founder of Dopamine Labs (now Boundless Mind), told Time magazine “your kid is not weak-willed because he can’t get off his phone … Your kid’s brain is being engineered to get him to stay on his phone” (Edwards, 2018). In 2018 Marc Benioff, CEO of the cloud computing company Salesforce, told The Guardian that “product designers are working to make those products more addictive,” and Nir Eyal (2014) explained a number of the techniques used in his book Hooked: How to build habit forming products. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist with Google, recently told the Economist’s 1843 magazine that the “job of these companies is to hook people, and they do that by hijacking our psychological vulnerabilities.” In 2017, former Facebook president Sean Parker was reported as saying that Facebook exploits “vulnerability in human psychology” and that the “thought process that went into building these applications, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Documents leaked to The Australian in 2017 seem to suggest that Facebook had boasted to advertisers that it has the capacity to identify when users feel insecure, stressed, overwhelmed and worthless, and can micro-target ads down to “moments when young people need a confidence boost.”

Whether or not media psychologists accept claims that digital technology can be ‘addictive,’ it seems clear that some digital technologies are designed to capture the attention of users for considerable periods of time, often more time than would be considered healthy in a balanced life. Therefore, some psychologists have questioned how ethical it is to use knowledge of psychology and neuropsychology in the aid of persuasive design. A group of over 60 psychologists, led by Jessica Daniel, has written to the APA noting that psychologists assisting with persuasive design may be contravening the APA Ethical Principles and Standards. They have requested that the APA publicly speak against psychologists aiding persuasive design, work to make sure such techniques are publicly disclosed, and provide public education. As a strong advocate for a healthy media diet, including healthy levels of use, I think the time is right for such psychology peak bodies as the APA to investigate and report on the use of psychology in persuasive design, with a view to providing clear ethical guidance to media psychologists and recommendations to policy makers and the public.


AAP Council on Communications and Media. (2016a). Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162591

AAP Council on Communications and Media. (2016b). Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162592

Common Sense Media. (2015). The Common Sense Census: Media use of teens and tweens. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Available October, 3, 2017 at

Edwards, H. S. (April 13, 2018). You’re addicted to your computer: This company thinks it can change that. Time magazine. Available at:

Eyal, N. (2014). Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. New York: Penguin.

Warburton, W. A. (2012). Growing up fast and furious in a media saturated world. In W. A. Warburton & D. Braunstein [Eds.], Growing up fast and furious: Reviewing the impacts of violent and sexualised media on children (pp. 1-33). Sydney: The Federation Press.

(Editors Note: Wayne Warburton, PhD, received the 2018 Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award to Media Psychology & Technology from the APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology.)


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