Why are teenagers easy to manipulate?

How children are manipulated by secret routes

Targeted psychological influence is there in the web like family. She always disregards children and prevents theirs freedom of opinion.

Text: Thomas Feibel
Petra Dufkova / The Illustrators

How big and far-reaching the subject of manipulation is was recently shown to me at a workshop with a school class. I asked the young people to speak openly about their manipulation experience. As a media expert, I wanted to get down to the insidious tricks on the internet.

"My mother," said a 17-year-old frankly, "always says: You can of course do what you want, but you know how I think about it."

That is a very remarkable statement. At first glance, the mother leaves him free to decide, only to charge her on the emotional level in such a way that ultimately a free decision is no longer possible.

Regardless of whether we emotionalise or exaggerate praise, manipulation is part of everyday life in most families and is not just a network problem. Manipulation makes many processes easier and more convenient, but it is always wrong. We deceive the child in this way because we secretly lead them to something that they actually do not want.

As parents, we are challenged to expose the methods of manipulation together with the children.

No doubt, children also need to learn to do unpleasant things. But that must then be clearly stated. Manipulation prevents the free formation of opinion and is therefore always a disregard for the child.

Of course, children also try to manipulate their parents. No wonder, they quickly learn to defeat them at their own guns. That doesn't work on the internet.

Influencers already have the manipulation in their name

Influencers are always heavily criticized because they subtly influence the buying behavior of children and young people. But why is it actually subtle? The term “influencer” clearly shows that the name, influencer, is also the program. It is as clear as advertising is advertising. Youtubers and influencers, however, are more personal than pure advertising. It is easier to identify with them because they reach their target group in a friendly manner and they are more likely to accept an idol's recommendation.

The developers of games have also found a way to manipulate their target group and get more money out of their pockets. For example with payment systems such as in-app purchases: the basic game is free, other elements have to be paid for. In the free "Fortnite Battle Royal" nobody has to spend money to advance. And nobody has to buy skins that only allow the character to be individually designed. Nevertheless, Epic Games makes billions in sales with this and works with cognitive psychologists as early as the conception phase. Among other things, they are responsible for ensuring that the players are satisfied, because only then will they keep coming back and generating sales. A twelve-year-old explained the motive for the purchase to me in a workshop as follows: "If I leave my figure as it is, my friends will make fun of me."

In times of corona, disinformation is booming

Children and young people seldom read the newspaper; they usually get information on the Internet and social media. It is not uncommon for them to get false news. Unfortunately, even adults are not immune to this form of disinformation. Especially in these difficult Corona times, conspiracy mosquitoes quickly become conspiracy elephants through unchecked liking and forwarding. When we no longer know what to believe, the so-called fake news has achieved its goal: destabilization and division. Various psychological techniques support this because they address unconscious areas of the human brain.

This is how the most common online manipulation techniques work:

  • Framing means to assign a certain meaning to words through their selection. This method is often used in politics to reduce the message to a short and catchy formula. So when the term “refugee wave” is spoken of, the brain associates the term with something negative. Just as it makes a difference whether one speaks of an “investor” or a “grasshopper”.
  • Priming is a psychological form of manipulation in which the other person is influenced by linguistic stimuli without noticing it. The method uses smells, sounds, experiences and feelings in the brain. An example that I like to use in workshops is an old kid's joke. Do the test yourself: Have your child say "white" ten times in a row. Then ask: "What is a cow drinking?" She drinks water, of course. But the answer is mostly "milk." This is how priming works.
  • Mere exposure effect: Also comes from psychology. It means: the more often something is repeated, the more positively it is perceived by the brain. Many are amazed at Donald Trump's bizarre statements. The more bizarre, the more they get picked up on by the news. It does not matter whether his statements are true, untrue or ridiculous. Because subconsciously, Trump becomes more and more familiar to his voters in this way.

All of these methods are designed only to obscure people's view of reality in order to manipulate it. There is also another effect: Many websites or social media try to predict their behavior based on the information they have about the individual user. The next time they visit, they only provide him with the information that confirms his attitude. They filter out other viewpoints. This creates a “filter bubble” in which the user loses touch with reality.

If children and adolescents are subject to such manipulation, they have no chance of forming a clear opinion and realizing the reality. But if you don't learn to deal with other points of view because you don't really experience them, you will never be able to argue. But there can be no democracy without the freedom of opinion and the ability to argue.

This is why we as adults are called upon to support children and young people in questioning information from the Internet critically and in using them to expose the methods of manipulation. There are enough examples on the net.

This is how you strengthen your children against manipulation

  • Avoid any form of manipulation of your child as much as possible: no exaggerated praise, threatened withdrawal of love and fussing.

  • Find influencing examples in a variety of media, such as TV commercials, and discuss them with your child.

  • Together, look for examples of balanced reporting.

  • Read "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen with your child and talk to him about the plot.

About the author:

Thomas Feibel 58, is one of the leading journalists on the subject of «Children and New Media» in German-speaking countries. The media expert heads the office for children's media in Berlin, gives readings and lectures, and organizes workshops and seminars. His parents' guidebook “Now put your cell phone away” was published by Ullstein-Verlag. Feibel is married and has four children.

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