We live in the information age. Never have so many had such limitless access to instant information. At first appearance this is a good thing, right? Kofi Annan once said: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” By the way, I got that off the internet with a click of a finger. But I used it because I happen to agree.
However, we also live in an age of disinformation. A recent MIT study showed that fake news travels six times faster than real news. Social media initially created so much good, we forgot to look at the flip side.
But the problem in the tech industry goes beyond the spread of disinformation. Social media has been connected to heightened levels of anxiety and alienation. “The Social Dilemma” documentary on Netflix is one I urge all parents to see. We were shown by former and current CEO’s and technical designers of some of these social media sights just how bad things can get. Since 2009, there has been a 62% increase of adolescents aged 15-19 who are admitted to hospital for non-fatal self-harm. In younger children, aged 10-14 the percentage is much higher. Unfortunately, the same pattern goes for suicide rates.
A whole generation appears to be more fragile, more depressed, more anxious and more alienated. Social media takes over and provides them with their sense of self-worth and identity. They become completely dependent on social approval being given to them every five minutes by the amount of “likes” they receive for any post. It makes them compare themselves to unrealistic standards of beauty and lifestyles – often fake. It’s not that this didn’t happen before. Magazines have always published images of perfect public figures leading perfect lives. But now it’s no longer just public figures. It’s their friends, and these images are constant. Again, only at the touch of a finger.
People become hooked – like any other addict. It’s irrelevant if its Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, TikTok or Google. All these compete for your attention. They are designed to know what you like to see. They learn how you think and what you like, and then feed you it in order to capture your attention as much as possible. In return, they sell millions of dollars of advertising, making these internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity. Everything you do on line is tracked. Algorithms, get to know you better than you know yourself. And this is gold to advertisers. In return for your attention, which you willingly give to them for free, they sell advertising. What a great business model.
But social media goes further. They can change how you think, what you do and who you are. Essentially, we become pods in the matrix. How is it possible that a hand full of designers in Silicon Valley have so much power over billions of people? This in essence is a global assault on democracy. These sites have become the most efficient weapon of persuasion ever created. Imagine what that would mean in the hands of a dictator who wanted to control the population of a country?
Reading has gone out the window. It’s so much easier to reach for Netflix than to pick up a book. The problem is that reading is crucial. It develops our vocabulary; it stimulates our imagination, it improves our appreciation and understanding of culture, it increases our knowledge, it lengthens our attention span, and so forth. Try get an adolescent to read these days. It’s become an uphill battle.
When Facebook was first launched, the idea was to bring us closer together. Users were able to get in touch with friends or family members they had not seen in years. Instead I believe it has drawn us apart. Never have we witnessed such levels of polarisation in Western societies. Never have we witnessed such a breakdown in trust in political institutions and science. We hunker down in our bubbles, speaking only to those who agree with us and that validate our preconceived opinions. We only follow those we like on social media, engaging less and less in social contact and debates with those who disagree with us. Without realizing it, we develop tunnel vision.
Essentially, we are fostering a generation of closed-minded individuals, who rarely listen to the other side, who are bombarded with disinformation that manipulates the way they think and ultimately the way they act. Subjective perceptions have replaced objective observation. Facts have been buried to make way for feelings.
How do we combat this? Schools would be the right forum. They can create awareness of this problem by explaining how social media works. They should also cultivate critical thinking. Unfortunately, what we tend to see of late is that open minded discussion and voicing opinions that question those of “progressive” movements such as “all police are racists” may quickly get you branded a white supremacist. So, most people remain quiet, never voicing their true opinions, scared that they may not have access to the universities of their choice, or that they may lose their jobs.
Another option is regulation. The Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a start. But we need to go further by, for example, regulating behavioural data, or not permitting these companies to give third parties access to your data without a judicial mandate.
Parents can and should also educate their children and can limit time spent on social media – another uphill battle. We can force these companies to fact-check their content, take down child pornography and prevent children having access to violent and pornographic material?
How this is to be done is not clear. For example, Twitter has recently decided to ban Trump’s lies. But is that the solution? Maybe Twitter is pandering to the Left. Does no one else in the USA lie or try to manipulate our understanding of events? As a liberal, it leaves me feeling rather uncomfortable to have these social media conglomerates decide what can and cannot be viewed on their own platforms.
Some, myself included, do not adhere to social media. I admit that Netflix is much more my thing. When I feel it’s digging into reading time or keeping me up just to watch “one more episode…” I leave my iPad far from my room and keep a collection of books close at hand. However, I’m in my late 40s, not a teen at school whose whole social life depends on social media.
Rising levels of anxiety and depression, increased polarization, disinformation, loneliness and alienation cannot be blamed on the tech industry alone. Life is never that simple. But the tech industry has played a vital role in contributing to this problem. It’s time we realize this and start to think of how to mitigate it.