A group of psychologists is calling on the American Psychological Association to condemn the tech industry’s “unethical” use of persuasive psychological techniques to keep children online.

Sixty psychologists signed a letter to Jessica Henderson Daniel, the president of the APA, on Wednesday in order “to call attention to the unethical practice of psychologists using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children to social media and video games.”

The practices, they write, drastically increase the amount of time that children spend online, which is “putting their emotional well-being and academic success at risk.”

Their targets are members of their own profession, who are routinely hired by big technology firms to make products more attractive to their users through “persuasive design,” a field of research that takes advantage of what psychologists know about how people act in order to change their behaviour.

Megan Owenz, a psychologist at Penn State Berks and a co-author of the letter, told CTV News Channel that persuasive design can be used to enhance people’s lives and to effectuate positive change, such as helping someone to quit smoking or to lose weight.

But parents and children are largely unaware of persuasive design’s dark side and the way in which it “capitalizes on children’s developmental vulnerabilities” in order to hook them to sell digital products, she said. Neither parents nor children are ever offered an opportunity to provide informed consent to these tactics, she added.

For instance, the letter says that psychologists help technology firms design social media sites with the inherent need for social acceptance that is common among young girls in mind. Many video games, it says, feature a reward-based structure because psychologists are merely exploiting “the inherent development drive in preteen and teen boys to gain competencies.”

Facebook Messenger Kids, a spinoff of the company’s messenger app that is specifically designed for children as young as six, has badges, masks and activities because psychologists knew that those features would help make it “the most interesting thing kids want to be doing,” Owenz said.

An APA survey from 2017 on technology and social media found that the constant use of digital devices is associated with higher stress levels, and that many parents are concerned about the possible negative health outcomes associated with their kids’ increased screen time.

The psychologists are calling on the APA to better educate parents, who often blame themselves when their attempts to get their kids to cut back on screen time fail.

“The reason is not because there’s something wrong with your kid or necessarily wrong with you as a parent,” Owenz told CTV News Channel, “but rather because it was designed by psychologists not to be turned off.”