But a decade+ in, the cracks are starting to show, socially. And it’s notable how some tech insiders who’ve jumped outside are now sounding the alarm about how the platforms they helped create can actually harm us.
In a new documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, director Jeff Orlowski interviews a bunch of these ex-tech-titans who admit how the addictive nature was a specifically designed feature. We, consumers, knew that mainly — but with the current depths of believable fake news, intense machine learning, and ingenious algorithms, the overall mind-meld starts to alter perceptions and behavior without us even being aware.
In 2018, Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, admitted the platform’s goal was primarily to distract: “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'”
Addiction is not a term used loosely here — there’s a serious dopamine hit you get when you see a notification that someone commented on your photo or tagged you in a post. With Twitter, your feed refreshes like a slot machine, so you keep ‘pulling the handle’, churning tweets to get that possible feel good hit.
The algorithms continue to serve us things we like, and things it thinks we’ll like, based on our usage and input on the platform. As former Google design ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder Tristan Harris, says, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
The sheer amount of information the apps have on us, what makes us click, what friends we respond to, where we are in real-GPS terms — that and far more are all leveraged, even in notifications, to get us back on the platforms when we are not on them. It’s our time and attention that equals profit.
As adults, we’re aware, if not fully comprehending, the addiction and manipulation. But it’s the impact on the next generation that’s most troubling. We don’t know how tech access affects children’s brain development, but we know the platforms can adversely affect their emotional well-being. From cyberbullying to FOMO, the mental strains are showing. Loneliness and feelings of isolation in tweens and teens, along with suicide rates, have skyrocketed — all from platforms’ designed to help people connect.’
The most interesting and telling fact? Many in the industry are limiting access to tech and social media for their own kids.
Mark Zuckerberg says he wants his daughters to read Dr. Seuss and play outside rather than use Messenger Kids. The Gates’ children did not have smartphones until they were 14, and they could only use a computer in the kitchen. Even Steve Jobs reportedly limited his children’s use of technology at home very strictly.
A number of tech leaders send their kids to institutions like The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where electronic devices are banned in the classroom for children under 11, and tech is strictly controlled for the upper grades as well. In fact, most assignments there are handwritten.
So, what to do? And how do the big tech defectors suggest we take control back?
Delete apps or at least turn-off notifications
Set limits for how long you spend on the apps
Get your phone OFF your bedside table — don’t let it be the last thing you see at night and the first thing you look at in the morning
Make more active decisions — for instance, choose the YouTube videos you watch, not what is suggested
Most importantly, FACT CHECK, FACT CHECK, FACT CHECK, ANYTHING you read there
You may ask, why are we, a group that promotes online, offering this angle up? First, self-critiques can be very healthy (looking at you, ‘Merica.) Plus, we think social media can do good, from raising money, linking love ones, and making one aware of something that could bring joy to life. But all media needs to be balanced, time-bound, and SELF-curated, with reason.
Finally, we firmly believe parents should monitor their kid’s access, on many levels. As in all things, Moms & Dads that are involved (in a good way, helicopter parents) should have an easier time checking in, gauging challenges, and holding back on heading down the slippery slope of 24/7′ connectivity.’
Of course, the irony is not lost that the film sounding the alarm about what big tech is doing to us is on Netflix, which uses its own algorithm, and collects data on us, and promotes and talks about the film on the channels they challenge in the film.
But, hey — how else would they get it out there in this day and age?