There are eras in history that are documented and remembered more than others, examples are; the renaissance for the enlightenment of humanity and the industrial revolution for the transformation from a rural to an urban society. We are now living through a new era, the technological age. This era is bringing us technological advances at astounding rates and infiltrating every part of our personal lives via one of it’s key disruptive technologies - social media.
Social media is prevalent everywhere - Gen X, Baby Boomers and of course, millennials understand this and social media has become intertwined within the very fabric of society.
The advent of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter kickstarted the modern ‘social sharing’ movement. All of a sudden everyone is sharing everything about their lives on these social platforms. Single handedly, Social Media has accelerated the rate of ‘global connectedness’ transcending cultures and languages. Technology is arming us with an unprecedented amount of information, and we are able to assimilate data at an astonishing speed. Conversely, research shows that technology is making us impatient, frequently distracted, and desperate for constant entertainment.
It is not at all surprising that social media is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Those born in 2000 are entering their 18th year and large numbers have been fully exposed to the digital world their entire lives. It’s very unlikely that these 18 year olds can conceive of a world without YouTube, Facebook or Twitter OR one with the glorious yet infuriating sound of internet dial up on the landline (just me then?!)
Connected, yet also simultaneously disconnected to the world.
As I sit here and write this, I am filled with a weird anxiety, that engulfs me. Like a toddler, who yearns for their dummy. Unfortunately, I am a woman in my late 20s, who feels anxious when I am away from my phone. It’s actually pretty pathetic and somewhat embarrassing to admit and write down.
Over the past few months, I have been thinking about this situation. How I spend a ridiculous amount of time aimlessly looking at pictures (instagram) or reading articles that I wouldn’t actively seek; had my phone not directed me to the content. One of the reasons I have started blogging, is so that I can engage in topics that interest me. I remember (before the iphone phenomenon) how watching too much TV was touted as bad. We have far exceeded the grand expectations of TV, with our constant, easy to reach and transportable mobile phones.
Unlike television, the phone is always readily available. On the bus, in bed, in the bath (slightly risky), the list is endless. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that the internet or social media is a bad thing (quite the contrary), but it seems to be infiltrating too many areas of our lives. In a recent report by Deloitte, it is reported that the average American checks their phone a whopping 47 times a day. That sounds about right, I am almost certain that I beat that record on a daily basis.
Source ITU, 2017
Idisorder? Clearly, I have a problem. I have always had a laser-like focus, until recently. Now, I find myself lacking the ability to work through an uncomfortable level of boredom, to achieve something, without going in for the quick ‘fix’ of checking my phone. I am not alone, we’ve all seen it. You walk down the street and you will see people on their phones, ambling carelessly with device solidly in hand (I am guilty of this). You take public transport and often find the deafening silence as passengers stare down into their devices. It is everywhere.
Dr.Larry Rosen, Author of ‘iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us’ posits that; “We have not reached the peak yet and have a ways to go until we are all saturated with constant need to check in all the time. The more tech the more challenges on how to keep someone from succumbing to the draw that is inherent in new social sites.”
Addiction is custom built. This may sound like scaremongering, but ultimately these platforms are products that are designed to generate revenue. At a basic level, social platforms are designed in a way so that we find it impossible to turn them off, to disconnect.
As Tristan Harris (former Googler) puts it;
“Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano. And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.”
Ever worrying, are the psychological effects. We have come to rely on mobile phones and similar technology over the past 20 years. We haven’t had the time to digest how it has shaped society, let alone what negative effects are coming our way. We all have that social media friend who only posts endless photos of themselves posing in the mirror. That is at the extreme end of the spectrum of social media enthusiasts. We all know that most people carefully curate their social media to demonstrate their best moments to the world. This is all fine and dandy, except it is encouraging us to compare ourselves and thus feel deficient in some way. A study by Scope, a UK mental health focused charity saw that of 1500 social media users (Facebook/Twiter), 62% reported feeling inadequate/jealous when viewing social media.
Recently in a Guardian article, Chamath Palihapitiya, former viceresident for user growth at Facebook said that social media “...Is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other”.
The irony is that, people want to make connections with other beings, but by spending our lives on social media we are feeling more lonely and isolated than ever. There is a strong correlation between social media usage and increased loneliness/depression. A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh in 2014, sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine social media use and an established depression assessment tool. It was noted that participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week were 2.7 times more likely to suffer from depression. The numbers speak for themselves.
Where are the Ethics?
We all have ethics (well most of us), a moral compass guiding us on what is right and wrong. Businesses have ethics that they must follow (at least in financial terms, for example Sarbanes Oxley in US). Most industries have some sort of regulation in place to state what kind of practices are acceptable vs. not. The tech industry affects so many parts of our lives (driverless cars, DNA sequencing, AI etc.) so imposing universal ethics would be no easy feat. As technology continues to progress at an exponential rate, regulation needs to keep up with the fast-changing landscape. So where are the ethics in designing addictive products for the pubic?
As Thomas Jefferson said;
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times”
The Challenge: Take Control
“Your behaviors, you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed,” per Chamath Palihapitiya. “It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you’re going to give up, how much of your intellectual independence. So how can you reprogram yourself to do what YOU want to do, and to limit your time on a device?
This is the hard part, weaning ourselves off from the ever enchanting world of social media. Trying to take back your own time, instead of letting some very smart designers dictate on how you spend your time.
When I use a social media platform, I will try to consider the following and remember that these are products that have been designed to get us to depend on the service/offering. Having read Tristan Harris’s article on the design fundamentals that are used by tech designers, I think if we are more conscious of how a dependency is created, then we will be more mindful of engaging on the various social platforms.
In summary (derived from Tristan Harris’s Article), when using an app try to consider the below:
I for one will be ringing in the new year trying the digital detox listed above - wish me luck, something tells me I am going to need it (blogging OBVIOUSLY doesn’t count). I will let you know how it goes:)
Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design.
Work in innovation. Constantly thinking about random, sometimes interesting stuff. Minimalist in training,Mum-to-be, creative soul.