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Designed to Hook Kids

Managing your children’s screen time can feel like an uphill battle. But the war is not between you and your kids. It’s between your kids and technologies that are designed to keep kids hooked.

But don’t just take our word for it. Here are some key terms that are common to technology companies designing the apps, social media and video games our kids use.


Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. This includes the design, research, ethics and analysis of interactive computing products (computers, mobile phones, websites, wireless technologies, mobile applications, video games, etc.) created for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors.

The CAPT in captology is an acronym created in 1996 by BJ Fogg from the phrase “Computers As Persuasive Technologies.”

The field of captology and persuasive technology is growing quickly. Every day more computing products, including websites and mobile apps, are designed to change what people think and do.

Persuasive Design

Persuasive design is a method of building software to intentionally change users’ behaviors and attitudes. The power of this persuasion comes from the deliberate creation of digital environments tailored to spark inherent human drives and desires. The most successful of these artificial environments are even better than the real world at driving users to seek social rewards and pursue manufactured goals. By design, kids spend countless hours in social media and video game environments in pursuit of likes, “friends,” game points, and levels. The rewards and anticipation of rewards are stimulating, and users buy into their legitimacy and believe achieving in this artificial point system makes them happy and successful. And it’s mentally easier than doing the difficult but developmentally important activities of childhood.

Brain Hacking

Brain hacking is the application of techniques and/or technologies to affect an individual’s mental state, cognitive processes or level of function. In technology design, brain hacking uses programmed methods of hijacking peoples' minds to form a habit.

The Hook Model

The Hook Model is designed to build products that create habit-forming behavior in users via a looping cycle that consists of a trigger, an action, a variable reward, and continued investment.


Apps and video games use external triggers such as notifications to bring users back into a platform. Over time these repeat visits begin to form an internal trigger that starts to intertwine emotions with the behavior of using the technology. As this emotional bond with the application grows, usage of the app or game becomes a habit or even a compulsion.


Once triggered, the user is now motivated to take action. Apps use triggers that inspire maximum motivation to complete an action. Apps and games then use design to make completing the action as smooth and easy as possible.

Variable Rewards

Video games and apps use variable rewards to create intrigue in users. Featuring a new social media post or a new way to level up on a video game releases dopamine and creates the continued desire to log in.


The investment phase of technology adoption does two things: First, it ensures users will return to the platform to continue in the “hook loop,” then it collects some form of 'payment' from the user. Payments are designed to improve the hook loop and can be collected in the form of inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, or learning new features or skills.

Some Ways They Hook Kids


A Snapstreak begins after two users send snaps (pictures) to each other for three days straight. You might think competition is the motivation behind Snapstreaks, but it's more likely due to a psychological theory called the rule of reciprocation. Humans have a need to respond to a positive action with another positive action. Voilà, a Snapstreak is born. Kids can become so obsessed with sustaining a streak that they give their friends access to their accounts when they're unable to maintain their own streaks (which is actually a privacy risk). The rule is also at play with "like backs" -- when you like someone's post and ask them to like yours back to bolster your total number of likes. Of course, companies exploit the rule of reciprocation because more data points for them means more opportunities to understand their users and try to sell them stuff.


Most notable on Netflix and YouTube, autoplay is the feature that makes videos continue to stream even after they're over. Former Google Design Ethicist, 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 or shows.


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, etc.). Every app uses them, but some, such as Instagram and YouTube, have discovered that when notifications tell 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.


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.

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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