This Cyber Scotland Week we are focusing on what else youth workers can do to support young people to navigate their online lives.  In this blog post Dr Karen Renaud shares about new research that helps us understand young people’s knowledge of online dark patterns, how those impact their lives, and the skills they need to recognise, resist and recover.

Children increasingly operate independently online. However, the online world is also inhabited by bad actors who sometimes deploy dark patterns to deceive users (See Harry Brignull’s website). Examples of these are: “Bait & Switch” (you think you’re going to a particular address but are sent to another, which might masquerade as the address you want to visit); Privacy Zuckering (persuading you to disclose more of your information than you should) and Confirm Shaming (trying to shame you into taking some action).

Children might be particularly vulnerable to these efforts if they lack the skills  to recognise and resist these deceptive attempts. We carried out a study with 11-12 year old Scottish children to determine how aware they are of these dark patterns.

We showed them four scenarios, one at a time. Three were dark patterns, one a genuine browser warning. We asked them to draw a picture of what would happen if they clicked on the highlighted link.

We found that the children were very aware of online deception, referring to deployers  as being ‘up to no good’. They were  vigilant and were particularly attuned to the “Bait and Switch” dark pattern. However, there were some concerning issues as well:

Image of online risks to young people from poster

They imagined worst-case outcomes, conflating safety and security. This manifested when some of them thought the bad actors could physically come to their school or home if they clicked on the link. This infused cybersecurity with fear of existential harm. A high state of anxiety and fear will interfere with the ability to spot deceptive attempts online.

The genuine warning triggering also generated suspicion, suggesting that they still need to learn to distinguish between dark patterns and benign warnings.

Some children had no idea why the bad actors would be trying to trick them: the consequences they mentioned would most often be something that would affect their parents e.g., having their credit card stolen.

The children did not have any idea how to recover if they were deceived by a bad actor using a dark pattern.

Our recommendation is that awareness drives focus on specific instances of dark patterns and prioritising improving children’s understanding of the characteristics of, and the motivations behind, deceptive online techniques. Recovery from exploits should also be part of the awareness drive, especially removing shame from victimhood so that they feel free to seek assistance.

By doing this, we can help tweens to identify dark patterns more reliably and developing a more robust defence against these deceptive practices, as well as an ability to recover if they do fall for online deception.

Karen Renaud

Karen recently presented about her finding at the YouthLink Scotland Digital Youth Work conference on #SaferInternetDay 2024, and we look forward to the full research: Karen Renaud, Cigdem Sengul, Kovila Coopamootoo, Bryan Clift, Jacqui Taylor, Mark Springett, Ben Morrison. ‘We’re not that Gullible!’ Revealing Dark Pattern Mental Models of 11-12 Year Old Scottish Children. To Appear in ACM Transactions on Computer Human Interaction.