Revealing Young Learners’ Mental Models of Online Sludge

Dr Mark Springett: is co-investigator on a project funded by EPSRC Digital Economy NetworkPlus (SPRITE+ (EP/S035869/1)), confirmed in August:
Lead Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Grant Award: £29,533
Starts: 01 November 2021
Ends: 31 March 2022


This project will provide preliminary insights to help specify roadmaps for research: in addressing the ongoing issue of youth exposure to digital deception. The project will augment existing research on adults with a focus on youth, as well as steering methodical innovation to explore and address issues in cyber security.
Nurturing the skills of young learners (ages 11-14) to detect manipulative digital architecture is necessary for reducing their vulnerability to malicious intent and equipping them for lifelong reduction in vulnerability. An increasing number of digital designs seek to manipulate users to purchase goods or subscriptions, spend more time on sites, or mindlessly accept the harvesting of their personal data. For users, a site/app’s choice architecture can “nudge” or “sludge” decisions. Nudge is Choice Architecture manipulation towards the “wiser” option (for the nudgee’s benefit). Sludge is Choice Architecture manipulation towards the “worst” option (NOT for the nudgee’s benefit). Computer users are often unaware of the manipulative techniques they are likely to encounter as dark patterns, nudging, and sludging all often operate under the human conscious radar to exert their influence. Awareness forewarns and forearms but awareness raising efforts work best when they start from an understanding of existing mental models.
Without a targeted intervention, young learners are at risk of falling for malicious intentions as they begin to use a diversity of digital forums, and they will enter adulthood with enduring vulnerabilities and risk consequent harms. At present, however, young learners’ perceptions and misperceptions about manipulative design are under-studied: simply, we don’t know about young learners’ abilities to detect manipulation.

The project will assemble an accessible online methodology to reveal deception-related mental models, including facilitator training. Participants will be asked to draw and discuss mental models in collaborative workshops in order to produce two forms of data for analysis: 1) participant drawings of their mental models; 2) workshop discussion (discourse) of drawings and how participants navigate and can better navigate threatening situations.

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