What Social Responsibility do UX Designers Have When it Comes to Teens and Tech Addiction?

As studies show teenagers becoming increasingly addicted to smartphones, who is ultimately responsible for preventing these addictive behaviors from developing? We talked to two prominent UX researchers about the role UX designers play in tech addiction, and what needs to be considered when designing experiences for vulnerable young users.

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What Social Responsibility do UX Designers Have When it Comes to Teens and Tech Addiction?

A recent study has found that the majority of teenagers are predisposed to internet addiction. While this may not come as a surprise to you, a troubling pattern of behavior is emerging and experts are wondering who is ultimately responsible for the digital well-being of technology’s most vulnerable users.

“We can detect adolescents’ dependence on social networks, where everyone can feel interesting and needed. Many people become addicted to communication in social networks and replacing real-life relationships with virtual ones. Even [if] you are aware of your addiction, it’s not always easy to get rid of it,” said Regina Sakhieva, an associate professor and one of the co-authors of the research.

The study, a joint research project between five Russian universities, proposed that a psychological and pedagogical intervention is necessary at the educational level in order to prevent teenagers from succumbing to internet addiction.

In his book “Irresistible,” which explores the relationship between technology, addiction, and the businesses “that keep us hooked,” author Adam Alter turns to a new term coined “nomophobia,” which refers to an irrational fear of not having access to a mobile phone. It’s something he’s seen most drastically occur in teenagers.

In a study he conducted, he found that 40 to 50 percent of teenagers would rather break a bone in their hand than break their phone. When asked their preference, many of the teenagers he surveyed asked follow-up questions such as, “Which hand is broken?” “Can I still use my phone with my broken hand?”

Today’s teenagers were born into a technological world where toddlers can navigate screens faster than seasoned users and entire social circles revolve around being active online. Numerous companies depend on and profit off this behavior — but at the end of the day, is profiting off teenagers more harmful than helpful, and does it violate a UX designer’s fundamental responsibility to be empathetic and understanding of their users?

Where do empathy and ethics fit into designing intentionally addictive experiences for teenagers?

Shuli Gilutz, Ph.D., UX research in children’s technology, views the problem as an ethical issue.

“Knowing your audience is the number one rule of designing user experiences, however, the empathy we apply as UX researchers and designers must be supplemented and guided by ethics. This issue has been discussed widely due to recent events concerning social media and big data, but it becomes even more critical when designing interfaces for children and teens,” she wrote to Adobe in an email.

Dr. Gilutz explained that while there are legal requirements in place for applications and websites geared at younger children, experiences designed for teenagers are not often held to the same standards. Companies also take advantage of loopholes in legalities by marketing their products to a “general audience,” which means they don’t have to comply with any special regulations.

“This means teenagers are treated as adults in terms of personal data collection, privacy, and safety online. However, we do know that teen behavior is different from adult behavior and therefore may be easier to exploit. For example, current surveys show that teens aren’t getting enough sleep due to the pressure of being online (on social media and gaming) all the time. Immersion in social engagement for teens is nothing new, and is not a bad thing. However, these designs exploit these behaviors to create more ‘user engagement,’ and cause harm to their users,” she said.

She does not say Snapchat is harmful, but points to it as an example of an application that taps into the tech savvy of teenage rebellion by simultaneously avoiding the mainstream UX trends that appeal to adults.

“Snapchat’s huge success with teens has been attributed both to its social and personalized communication, but also to its non-intuitive interface. By going against basic UX principles, and creating an interface that lacks standard visual cues, Snapchat introduced a non-friendly environment to most adult users, which is exactly why it attracted teens: No parents! Recently, the mainstream adult world has discovered Snapchat, joined in, and started to create content for it. This may be one of the reasons that many teens are looking for a new place to ‘hang.’ This is similar to the surge and then drop of teens’ use of Facebook,” Dr. Gilutz said.

How can UX designers create more responsible experiences for teens?

Raluca Budiu, Ph.D., director of research, Nielsen Norman Group, brings up another point.

“Teens are easily distracted. They are more likely than adults to lose track of their main goals and get lost on tempting, irrelevant web paths. Often sites and apps will try to ‘increase engagement’ and drag users in through notifications, related links, or ads. These distractions rarely make for a good user experience, but they can be downright harmful for teens,” she wrote to us in an email.

While universities look to educational interventions, Dr. Budiu believes UX designers also have a role in making potentially harmful and addictive products more helpful by giving users (in this case, teenagers) more agency in how they access the technology.

“The designer’s first responsibility is to provide a good user experience. That means enabling users (whether teens or adults) to accomplish their tasks quickly and efficiently. The usability bar must be raised even higher for kids and teenagers — unlike older audiences, they often have poorer reading skills and less sophisticated research strategies,” she said.

To help them, Dr. Budiu recommends adhering to design standards:

  • Use simple, clear language and formatting that supports scanning.
  • Minimize visual overload.
  • Remove login walls that force teens to register or log in, sometimes using a social network account.

“Teens know about the danger of technology or social media addiction, and often want to control it, but fail to do so from fear of becoming disconnected from their peers. Let them customize the frequency and type of notifications that they receive. If they accept notifications, don’t push them into the most frequent schedule — instead, default to minimum settings,” she wrote.

“Ultimately and most importantly, understand the teens’ goals and help them get what they need fast. Don’t force them to take sinuous paths or expose them to countless temptations.”

Dr. Gilutz reminds UX designers that they are advocates for their users, and this means your job is to protect them.

“It’s our responsibility, as UX professionals, to be the voice of the user; not only to represent them in the design process, but also to make sure their rights are protected, and their experiences are truly enjoyable, as well as ethical. By taking into consideration teens’ unique developmental stage, we can lead the way in creating cutting-edge UX with the most early-adopter crowd, but also know that we helped make their world safer, healthier, and more fun, as it should be.”

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