Stopping social network addiction | Sunday Observer

Stopping social network addiction

Are you addicted to social networks? Do you scan the news feed on Facebook every five minutes? Do you constantly upload selfies to Instagram? Do you tweet every hour? Do you check Viber and What’s App for updates from your friends? If you do any or all of the above, you could be addicted to your smartphone or tablet, especially, the social networks. With more than two billion people plugged into these devices and services, technology companies have a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision.

Several serving and former Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook have recently spoken on the addictive nature of these sites, highlighting the need to protect children and young adults from the harmful influences generated by social networks. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, took aim at Facebook in an interview with Axios, saying he and other executives created a “social-validation feedback loop” to make Facebook psychologically addictive. In January, two big Wall Street investors asked Apple to study the health effects of its products and to make it easier to limit children’s use of iPhones and iPads. Among the others who criticized social networks was Sri Lankan-origin investor and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya.

Full-blown arms race

Now, many of these concerned Former executives/investors from Facebook and Google who helped build the services used by billions are putting pressure on the technology giants to make their products less addictive, particularly, for children. The education campaign, called Truth About Tech, comes as scrutiny grows of the mental health consequences of using these services and recent criticism of companies for targeting young people with children’s versions of their products. For example, Facebook has a kids version of its Messenger App and YouTube too has a kids platform.

Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that lobbies for children in the digital age, and the non-profit Center for Humane Technology are behind the campaign that is aimed at students, parents and teachers.

“They have created the attention on economy and are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention, including the attention of kids. Technologists, engineers, and designers have the power and responsibility to hold themselves accountable and build products that create a better world,” says, Tristan Harris, former Google design ethicist who will serve as a senior fellow at Common Sense. “The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them?” Harris has said. “We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”

Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology will hold a conference to detail the techniques used by tech companies to hook kids and the potential harm, including attention and cognition disorders, stress and anxiety. The groups say, they will work together to develop standards for ethically designing technology that discourages addiction and to push for regulation of tech companies. They also say they will unveil potential solutions to the problem.

According to Common Sense, teens average nine hours of media a day, and tweens average six. Half of teens say they feel addicted to their mobile devices, and the majority of parents, 60%, say their kids are addicted. This is in the US alone and the situation in other countries is not far different. I have seen very young children in Sri Lanka playing games and doing other tasks on smartphones for hours on end. Phones have become a nuisance in the classrooms and many schools now search the bags of students for phones.

“Tech companies are conducting a massive, real-time experiment on our children and, at present, no one is really holding them accountable,” James P. Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense, said in a statement. “Their business models often encourage them to do whatever they can to grab attention and data and then to worry about the consequences later, even though those very same consequences may at times hurt the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children. It’s time to hold tech companies accountable for their efforts designed to target and manipulate young people.” The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.

This is a welcome initiative that should have been taken some time ago. But even at this late stage, there is a lot they can do. As the Centre for Humane Technology points out, “these companies are in a race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behaviour. The race to keep us on screen 24/7 makes it harder to disconnect, increasing stress, anxiety, and reducing sleep.”

The other main problem is that many social networks carry fake news, some of which originate from Artificial Intelligence chatbots. They have done this by creating millions of fake accounts and bots impersonating real people with real-sounding names and photos, fooling millions with false impressions. This has gone to the extent where social networks can seemingly manipulate even the governance and electoral processes of various countries.

Big Brother

Besides, websites and their bots can track you across the Internet, which invades your privacy. Just check for a flight to Singapore on your desktop and the said query will follow you around even if you close that particular website. Open another website and you will see a banner ad for a site or an airline that advertises low fares to Singapore. This is indeed a sort of Big Brother behaviour straight out of the novel “1984”.

If you are a parent, now is the time to analyze how much time your son or daughter is spending online and take corrective action. With even Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook saying that he does not want his nephew anywhere near social media, you too can follow suit. Ensure that children have limited or little access to social networks.

And, as an adult if you are addicted to social networks, it is time to cure that disease first. Learn to let it go. Envious that your best friend is posting pictures of his vacation in the USA while you are sweating it out at your office in Colombo? Just don’t think about it. Smartphones and tablets have already reduced our physical communications and interactions – there are people who say good morning to their spouse on Facebook – but now it is time to get back to reality and real life. We can be better than this, as the saying goes.