More than half the global population uses the internet, most of them are on at least one social media platform. While previously, we had to take great pains to go to a library to research a subject, now with little effort we can google anything and get an abundance of information. Communication has become quicker; no need for letters, envelopes and stamps. Many families are able to enjoy video calls with their loved ones at almost no cost. Businesses and trade move faster as contracts, reports and analysis are blasted out as attachments on email. Technology affords us many privileges and comforts simplifying cumbersome, time consuming processes.
As technology continues to evolve and becomes more sophisticated, more and more people join the bandwagon. In the last twelve months alone, more than a million people started using social media at least once a day, which equates to almost twelve new users per second. People are connected like never before.
But there are a number of concerning patterns emerging out of humankind’s technological revolution. The use of the internet and social media have begun to pose problems that may be hard to fix if not addressed quickly.
In recent years, research has shown a strong link between online social networking and several psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, anxiety, and low self-esteem. The addictive nature of applications like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and many others only further complicates the problem and a vast majority of young users are falling prey. As early as 2013, a study found that the higher the engagement adolescents and youth had on social media, the lower their rate of general well-being was.
Why is this? People draw incorrect conclusions from a stimulated reality and see others as physically more attractive, more intelligent, happier or popular. This leads to young people undermining their own self-worth and doubting their own “perfection”.
On the other hand, some studies show an increase in narcissistic behavior among social media users. People who post extensively about their seemingly perfect travels, perfect meals, perfect lives, begin to believe in their own augmented stories. As their likes and followers increase, they carry that sense of achievement into their real lives and begin to display narcissistic traits.
Should we be worried? Most definitely.
The average amount of time spent online has more than doubled, increasing from 9.9 hours a week in 2005 to 20.5 hours; the average person checks their phone around 50 times a day. On the flip side, our attention span has dropped from roughly 12 seconds to just about eight, just below that of a goldfish. This is not good news. A short attention span means we are losing our ability to focus and perform at optimum levels. It means we are, or will soon be having trouble finishing a book, completing a painting, writing a paper. People with short attention spans battle their wandering mind, they have trouble sitting through meetings and communicating in their relationships.
We can see this clearly in our own families. Most of us, myself included, take our phones to the dinner table. As a family, we sit for a meal and all is well at the very beginning till the first phone vibrates. As the notifications come flowing in on our phones, all hope for meaningful conversation fades. Critics say that is exactly what social media is designed to do; behavior modification. We are being manipulated to keep going back, keep unlocking our screens, keep checking our apps.
Sean Parker, the first Head of Facebook said, “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. It’s a social-validation feedback loop, exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
But there is a bigger question here; if the adverse effects of social media are so profound on an individual, what are the effects on a larger community, on a country and on the world as a whole?
The answers aren’t favorable.
Because of their reach and algorithms, social media platforms are a perfect gateway to the minds of billions. Political parties use these platforms to propagate their ideology, to mobilize public opinion and to set agendas. The lack of regulation and accountability of these platforms mean that politicians are free to spread fake news, fear and polarization in order to win votes. The ability of mass messaging and micro targeting mean that parties are able to reach their desired audience with the desired message easily even the remotest of geographies. They are able to mold public opinion at a scale like never before.
In 2016, Barack Obama, the then President of the United States of America said to the New Yorker, “the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
Security and privacy are another aspect of modern technology that we need to be aware of. How safe is our data and of what value is it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other companies? Who has access to our most intimate chats, our pictures and our emails?
According to a 2019 Forbes article, “Compared to previous eras, nearly everything today is recorded and stored for posterity. Computer science academics at Northeastern University conducted research with 17,000 of the most popular apps on Android and as Gizmodo reported, apps were found to be recording the phone’s screen and sending that information out to third parties. There are plenty of ways for algorithms and artificial intelligence to “listen” to you — and then use that data to target ads to you. While we’re aware of popular audio triggers like “Hey Siri” or “Alexa”, these sites and apps may also have hundreds or thousands of their own triggers used to store data points when you say what you like and where you go.”
But all is not lost. Luckily, there are measures we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the negative effects of social media. Here is a list of things you can do right away to ensure you are getting all the benefits from your smartphone without all the risks:
1. Limit your screen time.
Most smartphones let you see your daily and weekly time spent on screen. Monitoring your screen time will make aware of how many hours a day you spend on your phone.
2. Clear out the clutter.
Over time, we have all downloaded many apps for this or that. Delete the ones that consume too much of your time and lack productivity. Also, no sense in having a busy home screen; remove the apps you don’t use anymore. A clutter-free phone equals a clutter-free mind.
3. Remove push notifications from all your apps.
This means that you won’t be disturbed mid-meeting, mid-conversation or mid-sleep by your phone only to learn that someone liked your photo, posted a new story or shared a joke.
4. Go gray.
Once in a while, setting your screen to grayscale means your user experience will be less attractive and you may find that you are only using your phone when you really need to.
5. Turn off your microphone.
Disabling the microphone button on voice enabled apps like Siri or Alexa will make sure your phone is not listening in on your conversations. If you’re worried about the data on your phone, try installing Glasswire which will show you which of your other apps are downloading your data.
6. Establish rules.
Every individual and every family is unique. If tech is ruining family time, you could decide to ban phones at the dinner table. If your phone is disrupting your sleep, you could leave it in another room at night. Find what works for you and don’t be afraid to try new ways of doing things.
7. Keep it real.
The real world has a lot to offer; nature, friendships, love, joy, connection, knowledge. Instead of chatting online, meet that friend for lunch. Instead of scrolling and seeing the lives of others, enjoy your own; go for a walk, pick up a hobby, read a book. Remember when we were kids? Things were simpler and yet most of us can say that we were happier.
There is no doubt that the internet and social media have brought meaningful, systemic changes in the way we live our lives. Social media platforms connect people from different geographies. Many have found love on the internet. Health apps help you track disease and help you live an optimum life. Education has become possible for millions of people who may not have the means for a full-fledged university degree. We can talk to and see our families and friends from across the world.
We must remember though that a knife in the hands of a surgeon can save a life while the same knife in the hands of a thief can take a life. We must find an equilibrium within ourselves and build guardrails to make sure we are using technology, rather than it is using us.
Lanier, Jaron (2018) Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. New York.: Henry Holt and Co.
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Pettijohn, Nathan Of Course Your Phone Is Listening To You. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanpettijohn/2019/09/03/of-course-your-phone-is-listening-to-you/#56a535806a3f (Accessed October 2020)