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Lesson 6: Conditioning

Updated: May 6

By the end of the lesson students will:

  • Understand the concept of conditioning.

  • Understand how social media companies use conditioning to encourage usage.


Overview of Ontario Curriculum Connections in this Lesson


A2: Digital and Media Literacy

  • A2.1: Digital Citizenship

  • A2.2: Online Safety

  • A2.3: Research and Information Literacy

  • A2.4: Forms, Conventions and Techniques

C1: Knowledge about Texts

  • C1.1: Using foundational knowledge and skills to comprehend texts

  • C1.2: Text forms and Genres

  • C1.3: Text patterns and Features

  • C1.4: Visual elements of texts

  • C1.5: Elements of Style

  • C1.6: Point of View

C2: Comprehension Strategies

  • C2.1: Pre:reading Activating prior knowledge

  • C2.2: Pre:reading Identifying the purpose for reading, listening and viewing 

  • C2.3 Monitoring and Understading: Making and Confirming Predictions

  • C2.5: Monitoring of Understanding: Making Connections

C3: Critical Thinking in Literacy

  • C3.2: Making Inferences

  • C3.3: Analyzing Texts


Background knowledge for teachers: Conditioning


Classical Conditioning. You are likely already familiar with the concept of classical conditioning, famously researched by Ivan Pavlov who recognized that a dog’s natural response to salivate at the presentation of food could be paired with another stimulus — a bell — so that after a time of regular and predictable pairings of the food with the bell, the bell alone would be enough to elicit the dog’s natural salivation response.


Pavlov’s early studies showed that our brains make associations and that our natural tendency to respond to one type of stimulus can transfer to another type of stimulus when we realize that the presentation of one stimulus is likely to be followed by another.


Operant Conditioning. About forty years later, a Harvard psychologist named B.F. Skinner developed a derivative theory of learning that he called Behaviourism. Skinner’s research showed that the frequency and the timing of the pairings that Pavlov had first identified could be used as a mechanism for training animals to do pretty miraculous things. Want to train a pigeon to push a button? Or a mouse to run a maze? All one needed to do was to provide rewards for desirable behaviours and withhold rewards for behaviours that were “undesirable”. 


Here’s how Skinner’s experiments on operant conditioning would work. When a pigeon was first placed into a Skinner Box — a specially designed contraption with a button and a food dispenser inside — the pigeon would naturally do random pigeon things. It would move around the box and peck at things that it was interested in. Pigeons are curious birds, after all. 


Eventually, the pigeon would peck at the specially designed button that would, when hit by the pigeon’s beak, release some yummy pigeon food. If the pigeon pecked at the same button again, the yummy treat would be released again. Although the first button peck might have been at random, the repetition of the reward in response to the behaviour provided the pigeon with information. It soon learned that when it pecked at the button, it would get a delicious treat. The pigeon therefore comes to learn that it can get a desirable reward, if it is willing to repeat the behaviour. But of course, Skinner was controlling the rewards — which means the Pigeon was being trained with rewards to repeat certain behaviours. In this YouTube Video, you can see Skinner training a pigeon to turn in a circle. 


Skinner also learned that once the behaviour-reward association was made, the behaviour could be strengthened (or extinguished) by introducing variable timescales for reward. So, if the Pigeon expects the reward to come after it pecks at the button, but the reward doesn’t come, it will persist in pecking until the reward does come. If no reward ever comes, the behaviour will eventually be extinguished but the reintroduction of the reward in response to the behaviour — even after a long period of time — will reinforce the previous association. 


Gambling casinos use Skinner’s schedules of reward to keep people playing slot machines. Win a jackpot one time — or see someone else win — and the Casino knows that people will want to keep on pulling that lever or pushing the button to get a payout. Patrons keep adding their money to the machine and it will eventually payout to someone. But, they don’t know when the reward will come. So, they keep trying. 


What does this review of Pavlov and Skinner and their research have to do with online activities? Well, a lot. 


The people who create the systems we use online — the applications, the software, the operating systems, the games, the social media platforms, search engines, e-commerce sites — they all know about associative learning, classical and operant conditioning, and how to influence user behaviour with the right kinds of reward at the right time and in ways that serve their financial (but not necessarily the user’s) interests.  


In Seeking Draven, Teagan begins to use social media. The poem “Checking” surfaces Teagan’s emergent awareness that she is constantly using Tab, her phone, to check things — texts, emails, the time, the weather, her feeds, her friends’ feeds. This lesson creates opportunities for students to critically analyse why this compulsion to check things happens, and what hidden design mechanisms are influencing human (and maybe their own) behaviours. 


The rewards of social media

Social media platform developers know that friendships, and the feelings of connection, mattering, and belonging are fundamental human needs. Using this knowledge, they have invented reward systems that condition people to behave in certain ways as they interact with their product.


These platforms allow people to accumulate “friends” (yay!) in a network of other friends of friends. Plus, platforms give us ways of interacting with our friends through the content we post. “Friends” can like our posts, follow us, or subscribe to our channels. They can also comment on our content. When our friends affirm our posts with a heart ❤️or add a comment that is encouraging or supportive, we are likely to feel connected, supported, loved, noticed. We might feel that what we have to say or share matters to people who matter to us. Everyone needs to feel supported, connected and that they matter. And so, to get these warm feelings — we post more, and wait for our rewards. And we do it over and over and over. 


For children and teens, who are developing, discovering, and constructing an understanding of who they are and who they want to be in the world, social media can be harmful, however. Researchers have found that the amount of time that children and teens spend on social media platforms is a statistically significant and positive predictor of anxiety and depression (e.g., Eirich et al., 2022; Gentzler et al., 2023, Twenge, 2020). There is a lot of variability in the ways that young people internalize social media, however. A recent study by Gentzler and colleagues with 237 US teens (mean age 15) found that although greater time on social media was associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms, teens who described themselves as extraverted were less likely to feel depressed when using Instagram than those who described themselves as more introverted, suggesting that extraversion may be a “protective factor” on this particular social media site. 


Orben and Blakemore (2023) note that developmental stage likely plays a role in the relative impact of social media on youth mental health, although much more research is needed. Younger adolescents whose brains and hormones and bodies are changing rapidly may be more susceptible to the impact of social media, in part, because they are developmentally predisposed to care more about what people think of them than younger children and older teens and adults, while also being increasingly drawn to interactions with peers (Orben and Blakemore, 2023, p. 411). 


This last point is especially important because social media sites use reward mechanisms like “streaks” to keep kids engaged with their platforms, along with quantified indicators of how “liked” a post is by their network. Given the importance that teens attribute to their friends’ judgments, is it any wonder Teagan (and kids like her) are constantly checking? They’re operating inside systems that use behaviourist (conditioning) mechanisms to reward them for being in networks to which they are already drawn because of a developmental imperative to connect. With all this checking, kids can be bombarded by messages that lead them to compare themselves to others. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of not measuring up by comparison, and to feelings of inadequacy (McCrory et al., 2022). Over time, this takes a toll. 


Although more research is needed on how to protect youth from the potentially harmful effects of these platforms, conversations about risk and opportunity along with conversations about how these systems are designed, and why, may help young people to recognize the often hidden dimensions of the systems they use.  


Lesson 6 Activities

6A. Understanding Operant Conditioning

Materials: Pencil, paper


Show to the class the video YouTube Video of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner training a pigeon to turn in a circle (1 minute in length). And ask students how Dr. Skinner used a reward system to reinforce the pigeon behaviour.


Read the poem Checking as a class.


Checking

I wake and check my texts.

I swipe and check my feed.

I check the time.

I check the weather.

I check email.

Check my texts,

Check my feed,

Check my friends’ feeds,

Like, share, reply,

Feed the feed,

Scroll the feed,

Play a game,

Check my texts,

Check my feed,

Check, check, check,

Bang, bang, BANG!

Dad’s pounding on my door

You’re late!

I check the time.

Oh no.

Get off your phone. It’s an addiction.

Really?

I want to check … 


Discussion:

  • What behaviour is Teagan struggling to stop?

  • Why is this happening? What may have reinforced this behaviour?

  • Is there a relationship between how Dr. Skinner conditions the pigeon and how Teagan has been conditioned to check? What is the reward system used by social media sites to encourage engagement? How does this drive user behaviour? Why do students ‘check’ a feed? What are they checking for? 

  • How does social media make you feel? When you receive a like or comment? When you don’t receive any feedback at all? How does it feel to be left ‘read’ without someone giving a reply? 

  • What are some unhealthy tendencies/thoughts when we don’t hear back from others? 

  • Why do social media companies use conditioning techniques? Why is user engagement important to social media sites and websites in general online? 


6B. Commercialization

Students may wish to investigate how social media companies use these techniques to make money. Because our relationship with social media is symbiotic, the more we participate in the network the more revenue it generates. The social media platform tries to keep us on the platform as much as possible. If users stop using the network, it decreases the health and size of the network. Imagine a social media profile with a thousand connections, if these connections were no longer in use, it would be like part of the network itself had died. Social media companies use several metrics to assess the health of their network. 

ARPU—Average Revenue Per User.  

DAU—Daily Active Users. 

Churn Rate—The percentage of its users who leave the platform. 

Engagement—which includes other metrics like shares, likes, comments, and time spent on the platform. 


If these are the key measures of health for a social media company, what does that mean for the users? 


Lesson 6 Reflection

This lesson helps students understand that the online networks we utilize have goals themselves that may not align with the goals of the students. Can the students think of one positive and one negative way they personally have been influenced by the designers of social media or websites? 

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