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WVU Researcher: Families should know about online ‘Dark Design’ and its impact on children

Do you understand ‘Sharenting’— when parents or guardians share celebrations, achievements and other information about their children online

By Matt Young

West Virginia Press Association

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -What are why are you sharing information about your children and family online?

West Virginia University’s Associate Professor of Marketing Dr. Laurel Cook recently delivered a presentation surrounding deceptive advertising techniques aimed toward young people called “The Effect of Dark Design on Children’s Digital Wellbeing.”

Dr. Laurel Cook

Journalists from across the state recently took part in WVU’s “Academic Media Day,” where they had the opportunity to hear from university researchers regarding a number of topics. Dr. Cook’s presentation was part of the event. The 2022 session marked the return of WVU Academic Media Day after a two-year hiatus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I want to share with you some of the reasons why we share information online,” Cook told the crowd in attendance at WVU’s Media Innovation Center. “Intuitively, we share content just as ‘regular people’ because we like the feeling of being connected to other people around the world.”

Cook explained that motivating factors behind online content-sharing include entertainment, inspiration, and the desire to be viewed as a “subject matter expert.” However, as Cook further explained, the compulsion for online content sharing may also sometimes stem from darker motivations. 

“We also share content online because it feels good,” Cook continued. “We have this conditioning. Some of my colleagues in information systems are actually researching the addiction-side of social media.”

“We can have these conversations about our kids with people we don’t even know, but they have shared interests,” she added, before explaining the concept of “Sharenting.” According to Cook, Sharenting occurs when parents or guardians share information about their children online. The sharing can be innocent social media posts about birthdays, travel, achievements, school activities.

“What I would say to a lot of parents is ‘look at the analytics.’ Every one of us has access to our content on social media. But we also have access to the analytics. We can tell that maybe we’ve got a bunch of older white men who are posting on my child’s post, and that would tell me that ‘this isn’t the right audience for my child’s information,’” Cook said.

“That should be enough impetus to stop sharenting,” Cook added. “I would want parents to understand the truth, and understand who you’re giving information to.” 

“Minors – anyone under the age of 18 – are specifically vulnerable to having information about them shared online,” Cook said. “This discussion about parents and their children’s privacy has come to the forefront of marketers.”

As Cook explained, a child’s physical, mental, and social well-being are significantly impacted by the time they are spending with digital devices. “Dark design” is a marketing strategy specifically “centered around deceptive design and patterns, intended to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do.”

Examples of dark design may include misdirection – where a user is manipulated into making a purchase; emotional appeals, where a user is guilted into an emotional response; and identity capture, where a user provides personal identifiable information to proceed with an action. 

“With the pandemic, we were sharenting more and more because we were isolated,” Cook noted, before adding that senior citizens are another vulnerable demographic who are of particular interest to marketers. 

Cook stated that “slowly but surely,” the United States is implementing measures to protect consumers for dark design practices. Cook added that while no federal legislation exists yet, many states have taken steps to curtail deceptive marketing strategies. 

“The good news is that right now, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is actively asking for research from people studying the subject to say, ‘Hey, how is this really affecting children?’” Cook said. 

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