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Children's health and development

Curbing social media user manipulation

APA Services supports legislation to increase transparency into techniques used by social media companies to trick consumers into handing over their personal data.

Cite this
American Psychological Association. (2021, December 16). Curbing social media user manipulation.

Boy looking at his cell phone

APA Services has endorsed a set of bills that seeks to increase the privacy of children and other social media users by restricting platforms’ ability to use “dark patterns.” Dark patterns are techniques used by platforms in their user interface that are designed to intentionally manipulate users into taking actions that result in oversharing personal information or driving compulsive use of the platform.

The Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction Act, or DETOUR Act, has been introduced by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John Thune (R-SD) in the Senate and a companion bill has been introduced in the House by Representatives Blunt Rochester (D-DE) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH). APA Services has been working closely with Senate Commerce Committee staff for several months educating them on the psychological science behind trauma caused by deceptive practices on social media.

The DETOUR Act seeks to curtail the use of dark patterns by “large online platforms,” defined as 100 million or more active monthly users. The act will thwart dark patterns by creating a professional standards body, registered with the Federal Trade Commission, to act as a self-regulatory body to develop and enforce guidelines around best practices. The bill will also prevent online platform operators from segmenting consumers for the purpose of behavioral experiments. A/B testing, or deploying new features to small segments of users then comparing their use to that of users that did not receive the feature, has become commonplace for these companies to develop and deploy new features. Companies covered by this act will no longer be allowed to conduct behavioral or psychological experiments on users without seeking informed consent from the users.

“The American Psychological Association supports the efforts of legislators to reduce harmful practices and deceptive tactics by social media companies. These practices can be especially harmful to children, but adults are also susceptible,” said APA Chief Science Officer Mitch Prinstein, PhD. “Through my research and that of my colleagues in psychological science, we increasingly understand how these companies can mislead individuals. This is why we support the DETOUR Act and its aim to protect social media users.”

Support for the DETOUR Act comes as part of APA Services’ broader activity to reduce the harmful impacts of social media on children. Last month APA Services endorsed two other bills also seeking to reduce harm. 

For more information, contact Corbin Evans.