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Many a parent and teacher has despaired over how easily young people’s attention is diverted, especially when they’re online. Stay focused! we urge them. Don’t let yourself get distracted! Our admonitions have little sway against the powerful temptations of the Internet. But there may be a better way to help teenagers resist the web’s lures: let them know that their attention is being deliberately manipulated and exploited. If experience with another bad habit—smoking—is any guide, teens’ own desire for self-governance is a force far more compelling than the exhortations of their elders.

Ever since the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health in 1964, public health advocates have searched for ways to stop young people from picking up the habit. They’ve said that smoking makes them look stupid and makes their breath smell bad. They’ve tallied up how much cash teens would have if it weren’t wasted on cigarettes. And, of course, they’ve told teens that smoking kills, adding graphic images of black lungs and tracheotomy tubes.

None of these approaches has worked as well as supporters hoped, and some have even backfired, making teenagers more likely to smoke. But a few savvy individuals—advertising executives, mostly, with an assist from teens themselves—did come up with a strikingly effective way to turn young people against smoking. They took a page from cigarette companies’ own playbook, tapping into adolescents’ fierce desire for autonomy. Instead of flaunting that independence by smoking, these teen-whisperers suggested, do it by resisting the manipulations of Big Tobacco.

As journalist Tina Rosenberg recounts in her book Join the Club, the “counter-marketing” approach didn’t feature a “long, boring lecture in church hall or school auditorium about proper behavior. And it didn’t look like more recent attempts at swaying teens—the booklets and posters showing rows of graveyards and cancer statistics.”

Instead, it introduced public-service campaigns with names like “Rage Against the Haze” and “truth” (the lowercase first letter attesting to its youthful subversiveness). It broadcast commercials—some of them directed by teens—that quoted from tobacco companies’ internal documents, in which executives mused about how to replace the customers who were dying off with a new generation of smokers. And it sent young, attractive staff members into classrooms to deliver an unaccustomed message: “We’re not telling anyone how to live their life. We’re not against smokers or smoking. We’re just here to give you information on how tobacco companies are manipulating you.”

Influences on teens
Photo: Martin Rickett/PA via AP Images

After decades of lackluster results (“The Bottom Line: No One Knows What Works,” read the headline of one article about antismoking efforts), the counter-marketing approach in the late 1990s generated impressive outcomes: In Florida, for example, the “truth” campaign led to an 8 percent decline in smoking among high school students and a nearly 20 percent decline among middle schoolers.

Counter-marketing relied, successfully, on teenagers’ indignation about being exploited by the tobacco companies. But Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds are bush leaguers at manipulating young customers when compared to today’s technology companies. The creators of today’s most popular apps, games and websites have perfected, quite consciously and deliberately, what writer Alex Soojungkim Pang has called “the commodification of distraction.” Who wants Joe Camel when you’ve got Facebook?

Pang — the author, aptly, of a book titled The Distraction Addiction — urges us to see the web as man-made artifact, the product of particular intentions and interests. “Some people talk about how the shiny-blinky flashing Internet appeals to our visually-oriented brains, how Facebook ‘likes’ and re-tweets give us a little shot of dopamine,” Pang writes on his blog, Contemplative Computing. “But these effects aren’t merely an accident. Technology companies actively design to maximize our engagement with them . . . Social media, gaming, and entertainment companies now spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to get you to spend more time interacting with them, to recruit your friends to join them, and to intentionally or accidentally share as much information as possible with them.”

Young people, for whom a connected world is the only one they’ve ever known, are especially liable to accept the Internet as the state of nature, simply the way things are. Perhaps this blithe acceptance helps explain the furor that erupted last month over the revelation that Facebook had involved users in a psychological experiment without their knowledge, deliberately manipulating their moods by determining which of their friends’ posts (upbeat or morose) they saw.

From the perspective of academic research, this was indeed a troubling violation: investigators are obliged to obtain the consent of the subjects in their studies. But from the perspective of online product development and marketing, this was business as usual: companies that earn their money on the web do their best to manipulate our moods (and our attention, and our wallets) every minute we’re online.

Let’s allow teenagers to discover (maybe with the help of their peers) that the freedom and autonomy they feel when they’re at the helm of their computers is in many ways an illusion, and let’s help them develop the skeptical, critical stance that would allow them to be truly autonomous users of the Internet. A template for such a project might be the efforts to show young people — especially young women — how magazine editors and advertisers seek to manipulate their sense of what the female body should look like. (The Photoshopped before-and-after images available through the Common Sense Media blog could well be the fashion world equivalent of internal tobacco company documents.)

Although there have been some attempts to teach students “critical thinking skills” with respect to the web, too often these programs adopt a sanctimonious tone, with all the rebellious appeal of extra-credit study hall. The history of antismoking campaigns offers a potentially more effective alternative. Granted, clicking a link or posting a status update won’t give teenagers lung cancer. But the undisciplined use of technology can waste their time, fragment their focus, and interfere with their learning. Just like their health, young people’s attention is a precious resource, and they should be empowered to resist the companies that would squander it.

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