How Social Media and Social Networking Sites Have Impacted People

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Contents

Technophilia

Technophilia is a term used to describe the enthusiasm generated by the use of technology, particularly new technologies, such as smart phones, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence. The term highlights humans’ attraction to such technology and how use can evoke strong futuristic positive feelings. With the rate of change ever increasing and new innovations being adopted ever faster, it is important to acknowledge that the reverent attitude towards technology that determines technophilia can sometimes prevent a realistic assessment of the environmental and social impacts technology has on society (Osiceanua, 2015).

The following wiki discusses digital technology’s general impact on North Americans’ personal lives, with a focus on: community, communication, and consumption of information and entertainment. The aim of this wiki is not to provide a complete overview of this impact, as review of this literature would be hardly possible. Instead, its purpose is to highlight the social implications of adopting and using such digital technologies.

Communities

Definition and Relevance

Community is a complex term. It can mean different things to different people, but it can be defined as “not as a place, but as both a feeling and a set of relationships among people” (Chavis & Lee, 3015). A “sense of community” is described as “the sense that one is part of a readily available mutually supportive network of relationships” (Farahani, 2016), countering opposite feelings of loneliness, isolation, and the feeling of not belonging. Some social scientists believe that it is natural to want a place where one feels they belong; it is suggested that humans have an innate attachment to specific places (Knox, Marston, & Imort, 2015). Some state there are three components of community: specific place, common ties, and social interaction (Farahani, 2016).

Specific place is an important aspect because humans have lived in place-based communities, meaning communities limited to their immediate locality, for nearly 10,000 years. They have also come to depend on human connection and social bonds for survival, so needing a sense of community is in their DNA. There are four components in creating a sense of community:

1) Membership - the feeling that who belongs to the community and who does not
2) Influence – the ability for one to express and influence the group, and for the group to influence its members
3) Integration and fulfillment of needs – the feeling that members are awarded and some needs are satisfied by being a member of the community
4) Shared emotional connections – the common history of members in a community

(Farahani, 2016)

A higher sense of community is associated with emotional safety and can affect people’s physical and mental well-being. Those with a strong sense of community are found to be generally happier, worry less, and perceive themselves to be more capable at handling their lives (Farahani, 2016). With the rise of digital technology, advanced transportation technology, and computer-mediated communication, developed countries have seen an incredible shift from place-based communities (physical communities) to place-less communities (virtual communities).

Virtual Communities

“Virtual” describes interactions that are enabled by technology. This type of computer-mediated communication (CMC) allows people to form sustaining virtual communities by talking to others with similar interests online. The most frequently cited reasons for why individuals join virtual communities are: information exchange, social support exchange, friendship, and recreation (Ridings & Gefen, 2004). Indeed, virtual communities can be fantastic tools for helping others find like-minded friends and have been extremely empowering for minority groups specifically. For example, virtual communities have been extremely helpful for members of the LGBQT+ community. Some individuals are not accepted in their own place-based communities, but feel accepted and find a sense of belonging online.

Similar to physical communities, some researchers have defined three dimensions of virtual communities:

1. Membership – people experience feelings of belonging to their virtual community
2. Influence – people influence other members or their community and
3. Immersion – people feel the state of flow during virtual community navigation

(Koh, Young-Gul, & Young-Gul, 2003)

Immersion can be considered a substitute for integration and emotional connections in non-virtual communities, but the immersion that users feel in virtual communities may not allow or allow only a limited sense of integration and emotional connection among members (Farahani, 2016).

Shifting From Place-Based to Place-Less

With the rise of social media and SNSs, communities have shifted from place-based to place-less. Advocates of social networks see this as liberation of communities that were once locally confined (Farahani, 2016) and this is true in many ways. One can find niche virtual communities for almost any interest, and they are an incredible tool for connecting with like-minded people.

However, some academic and members of the public worry that the rise of virtual communities has led to the deterioration of many place-based communities, especially those of neighborhood communities. Although this belief is not widely acknowledged, “community lost” describes the decrease in formation of local communities; these are recognized as loss because they are more likely to be considered true communities. Some academics believe that residentially based networks are the basic building blocks of social cohesion through which humans learn tolerance and co-operation to acquire a sense of social order and belonging (Forrest & Kearns, 2001). Although some research suggests that SNS use improves social relationships and social capital (Steinfield, Ellison, & Lampe, 2008), other research suggests that although users perceive their social needs as the largest reason for using SNSs, they do not report actually being socially gratified (Wang, Tchernev, & Solloway, 2012). The current research is inconclusive at this point, and it may be too soon to tell the effects that virtual communities have on place-based communities as they further establish themselves in North American society.

Social Networks, Communication & Social Norms

Definition and Relevance

Communication is a process by which information is exchanged between entities or individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviour, and it is essential to us as humans (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Over 10,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens was just one of a few other humanoid species, it developed language. Humans’ ability to “ingest, store, and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world” (Harari, 2014) allowed them to survive when their brothers and sisters went extinct. This ability to socialize allowed for collaboration and the creation of inventions such as transportation mobiles, electricity, agriculture, and iPhones, that would otherwise not have been possible. Up until around 1950 communication was relatively simple. There were a limited number of communication channels through which one could communicate: television, radio, telephone, newspapers and journals, and face-to-face communication. The rise of digital technology has radically changed the way humans communicate and the implications of these new methods and modes of communication will be explored in this section.

Trends in Computer-Mediated Communication

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is a term used to describe any human communication that occurs through the use of two or more electronic devices. This includes instant messaging, email, online forums, text messaging, chat rooms, social network services, and social media that has incorporated elements of social network services. Since the advent of the Internet and CMC, people are increasingly communicating through their mobile and smart phones. On average, “Americans send and receive about 94 text messages per day” (Burke, 2018) and North Americans check their emails multiple times a day.

Emergence of Social Network Sites

Social network sites (SNSs) are web-based communication platforms that support socially relevant interactions among contacts (i.e. “Friends”) on the site (Ellison, Vitak, Gray, & Lamp, 2014). They allow individuals to:

1. Construct a public or semi-public profile within bounded system
2. Articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection
3. View and travers their list of connections and those made by others within the system

SixDegrees.com was one of the first recognizable social network sites. Launched in 1997, it allowed users to create profiles, list their friends visibly, and surf the Friends lists. While SixDegrees wasn’t the first to include these features, it was the first to merge them. A number of other SNSs launched: AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Migente all allowed users to create personal, professional, and dating profiles, but there weren’t enough people on the internet yet to reach critical mass and none of these sites took off. However, following the launch of Friendster in 2002 and the succession of MySpace (2003) and Facebook (2004), social networking sites and CMC gained more attention. From 2003 onwards, SNSs hit the mainstream and the phenomenon of social media and user-generated content grew.

Case Study: Facebook: A Behaviour Modification Empire

Although Friendster and Myspace were two of “three key SNSs that shaped the business, cultural, and research landscape” (Ellison & Boyd, 2007), it was Facebook that truly took root globally. Just as MySpace was losing popularity, Facebook was expanding its network beyond Harvard students. It gained traction globally, and by 2009, Facebook was ranked as the most used social network in the world. In 2012 Facebook bought Instagram and continued its growth, registering its 1 billionth user that year. Facebook has had painful growing pains in the past six years. Psychological experiments, fake news, click baits for ads, data breaches, privacy issues, and Russian interference has kept Facebook in the media, but that still hasn’t stopped its growth as a primary form of CMC (Brandwatch, 2018).

One of the reasons why Facebook is the most popular social networking site to date is its versatility and scope of functions it provides for users. It offers “the convenience of network-wide group, and private communication channels through one interface” (Fox & Moreland, 2014) on both desktop and mobile devices. Some research has shown that Facebook’s connectivity may have psychological benefits by boosting self-esteem, promoting perceptions of social support, and maintaining existing relationships (Fox & Moreland, 2014).

Usage Statistics

As of 2018, Facebook has 2.23 billion monthly active users globally (Statista, 2018). Roughly 68% of U.S. adults use Facebook, and 74% of these users visit the site on a daily basis (Smith & Anderson, 2018). Users were spending an average of 50 minutes on the app in 2016. That’s more time spent than on any other leisure activity (Stewart, 2016).

Behaviour Modification Empires

Idealism of the Internet

Jaron Lanier, an American computer philosophy writer, and founding father of virtual reality does not consider Facebook as a social network platform. During his speech at TED2018, he called them “Behaviour Modification Empires”. When he and his colleagues were dreaming up the Internet at its inception, they believed that everything on the internet should be made free to be accessible for everyone. However, they needed capital in order to drive entrepreneurship, so their solution was the advertising model. Google and Facebook were created free – with ads. Lanier believes this was a “globally tragic, astoundingly ridiculous mistake” (Lanier, 2018) and unfortunately, what began as simple ad placement became more complex as the algorithms used to place these ads became more complex. Advertising turned into behaviour modification.

Behaviour Modification – What is It?

Psychological behaviourism is built on the assumption that organisms respond to external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories and reinforcements (Graham, 2015). Present in this is the work of B. F. Skinner, a psychologist and behaviourist, who developed the concept of operant conditioning. In his famous ‘Skinner Box’ experiment, Skinner introduced the Theory of Reinforcement wherein behaviour which is reinforces tends to be repeated or strengthened, and behaviour that is not reinforced tends to be extinguished. Treats or punishment can be used as examples of positive and negative reinforcement to give feedback for the behaviour (McLeod, 2018). In the case of SNSs, the treat comes in the form of likes or comments, and punishment comes in the form of not receiving those likes or comments.

The algorithms that Facebook employs are constantly observing users and changing the advertisements on their feed based on the stimuli to which they react. The goal is of course to get users to click on content, and the algorithms search for behavioural patterns in order to present stimuli that will elicit a react from the user. This is essentially behaviour modification. In this feedback loop people tend to respond to negative stimuli faster than positive, so negative stimuli rises faster and tends to be amplified by the system.

Peak Internet

Although Lanier laments the current state of the internet, he remains optimistic about the future and suggests a solution may include actually paying for things such as social networking and search functions. While most are quick to think that would never work, a prime example would be to look at television which is currently in a period called “Peak TV”. People pay for Netflix and HBO, and they are rewarded with good quality television. Lanier imagines a world of “peak social media” (Lanier, 2018)

There’s no question that whenever technology becomes more advanced, both the upside and downside get bigger and bigger... Fundamentally, we need to have a tech business where the incentives are not to manipulate people, but to get productivity from those people to grow the economy. -Jaron Lanier

(Balakrishnan, 2017)

Trends in Online Dating

Use of online dating sites or mobile apps by young adults has nearly tripled since 2013. [1]

Online dating has radically altered the dating landscape in North America since Match.com launched in 1995. A research scientist at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction asserts that “there have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years... The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution... and the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet” (Sales, 2015). Stigma around this method of meeting romantic partners existed until the late 1990’s, as did the perceived risks of encountering a sexual predator. However, 1997 marked a tipping point, and the usage of online dating sites increased rapidly as they started losing their stigma. More websites began launching as online dating caught on: eHarmony, OkCupid, and Ashley Madison. Launched in 2012 to exploited the relatively untapped young adult online dating market, Tinder was launched as a mobile-optimized dating application. Other mobile apps such as Bumble, an app that only allows the female users to initiate first contact, and Grindr, an app designed for gay and bisexual men, grew in popularity as well during this time.

Case Study: Tinder and Hook-Up Culture

Tinder Mission statement: (Match Group, 2015)

Establishing a romantic connection is a fundamental human need. Whether it's a good date, a meaningful relationship or an enduring marriage, romantic connectivity lifts the human spirit. Our mission is to increase romantic connectivity worldwide

Tinder became wildly popular after its release, with more than 70 million global users every month, in 196 countries (Rocha, 2018). It sparked discussion online about ‘hook-up culture’ and the current state of dating. Some believe that dating apps, especially Tinder, have enabled hook-up culture and may lead to damaging interactions that have negative effects on the mental well-being of its users, especially females (Sales, 2015). Many women push back against the belief that hooking up is bad and cannot be empowering for women (Sciortino, 2015). Some believe instead the “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of hookup culture” (Rosin, 2012). Review of the literature surrounding online dating provides inconclusive consensus whether online sites and mobile dating apps are good or bad for

Usage Statistics

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 15% of American adults have used online dating sites, up from 11% in 2013. There has been considerable growth in young adults aged 18-24 using dating sites. 27% report having used online dating in 2015, triple the amount reported in 2013. This increase can be attributed to the increase in use of mobile dating apps. (Smith, 2016).

Gamification of Love

"It's a match!" Tinder's dopamine hit.[2]

Gamification is the application of game elements such as competition, rewards, and quantifying user behaviour into non-game domains such as work, education, and social norms such as dating. Its purpose is to restructure social behaviour according to systems and metrics drawn from games. Although a relatively new concept, its application in new fields has increased rapidly (Woodcock & Johnson, 2018).

In the context of online dating, gamification is arguably what made Tinder so successful. The co-founder of Tinder, Jonathan Badeen, described his app: “We have these game-like elements where you feel like you’re being rewarded, kind of works like a slot machine, where you’re excited to see if you got a match, it’s a nice little rush” (Sales, 2018). Some researchers call it the “gamification of love” (Rocha, 2018). Badeen identified one of the most useful tools in this gamification process, the variable ratio schedule, which is a type of operant conditioning reinforcement schedule wherein a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule creates a steady, high rate of responding (Cherry, 2018). These unpredictable yet frequent rewards are the best way to motivate someone to keep moving forward. Simply put, Tinder uses the same mechanisms that make gambling so addictive.

When assessing whether or not gamifying a process is concerning, Woodcock & Johnson assert that it is “vitally important to identify who introduces [gamification], uses it, and for what ends” (2018). Sean Rad, another Tinder co-founder, once stated that “nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something... [they join] because they want to have fun. It doesn’t even matter if you match because swiping is so fun” (Stampler, 2014). With Tinder, it is apparent that the founders introduced gamification not in order to fulfil their company mission of increasing romantic connectivity, rather they use these addictive mechanisms to keep users swiping so that they can continue to collect valuable data. It’s all just a game to them, and a profitable game at that.

Social Media and Consumption of Information & Entertainment

Definition and Relevance

Media is used to describe any channel of communication including anything from printed paper to digital data (Media, (n.d.)). Media consumption can be considered as the information and entertainment media with which individuals or groups interact. Such media includes books, magazines, TV, film, and digital media that encompasses art, news, educational content, and other forms of information. Social media (SM) consumption then is the sum of entertainment and information media consumed through internet-based channels such as YouTube and Twitter.

Similar to the effect that digital technology has had on communities and communication, “the Internet as an influential communication medium has substantially changed the existing models of information”, news, and entertainment consumption (Pentina & Tarafdar, 2014). Supported by user-generated content, social media has exponentially increased the amount of information produced. Pentina & Tarafdar identify three characteristics of news consumption, although these findings can be extrapolated to include all social media:

1. The sheer amount of information to which consumers are exposed
2. The vast number of sources that provide information via print, broadcast, interactive mediums
3. The individual receives information from different sources simultaneously, from various media

At least in North America, social media has become ingrained our society. Around seven in ten U.S. adults visit Facebook and YouTube, and this number rises to almost nine in ten when just looking at 18-to-29-year-olds. However, this information is not static and is not influenced only by individuals taking part in these systems. Increasingly, algorithms are playing a larger part in creating a “personalized” social and entertainment media experience. As social media becomes further entrenched in our daily lives, it is important to understand the implications of time spent consuming this information and placing trust into the algorithms that feed us this information.

Isn’t Social Media the Same as Social Networking?

Social media are challenging to define, and the term has often been used interchangeably with social networking. However, a review of academic literature and public opinion finds that there is a subtle distinction between the two. Social networking is truly about networking and connecting with other people, whereas social media is less about peer-to-peer sharing and more about user generated content that is uploaded in a one-to-many channel. An example would be a user creating a podcast, photo, music, or video and uploading it to a social media site. Many social media websites have incorporated social networking elements and vice versa which might explain their interchangeability. Currently, social media is seen to be an overarching term under which SNS and other social media platforms are clustered. Instagram provides an example of a social media platform that incorporated social networking elements when it provided users the ability to direct message.

An article by Jonathan Obar and Steve Wildman (2015) attempted to identify four common features unique to social media:

1. Social media services are (currently) Web 2.0 Internet-based applications
2. User-generated content is the lifeblood of social media
3. Individuals and groups create user-specific profiles for a site or app designed and maintained by a social media service
4. Social media services facilitate the development of social networks online by connecting a profile with those of other individuals and/or groups

For the purposes of this section, social media will be used as its overarching term to include all thirteen of the following types of social media as identified by Thomas Aichner (2015): blogs, business networks, collaborative projects (i.e. Wikipedia), enterprise social networks, forums, microblogs (i.e. Tumblr and Twitter), photo sharing (i.e. Flickr), product/services review, social bookmarking (i.e. Pinterest), social gaming , social networks, video sharing, and virtual worlds.

History and Trends of Social Media

The rise of social media platforms followed the same trajectory as SNSs. Notable launches of social media platforms include: Flickr (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006) and Pinterest and Instagram (2010). Not only did the launch of these platforms exponentially increase the amount of information produced to be consumed, but they also created completely new industries. Advertisements on blogs allowed individuals to become professional “bloggers”. YouTube created a generation of professional “vloggers”, and with Instagram, came “influencers.” Social media paved the way for “content-creators” and naturally the market followed this trend.

Social media is currently an ecosystem of mutually beneficial actors: consumers who demand higher quality content; content-creators who are happy to see their audience and brand grow by supplying this content; and social media and digital technology companies that are more than willing to supply the means to create this content. The trajectory of this industry has just started and indeed there is little academic research yet on the societal implications of this new industry. (American Psychological Association, 2017)

Usage Statistics

A recent 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that YouTube and Facebook are the most used social media sites. 73% of U.S. adults visit YouTube but this number rises to 94% among 18-24-year-olds. 78% of 18-24-year-olds use Snapchat, and 71% of the same age group use Instagram. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram’s users visit the sites with high levels of frequency. 74% of Facebook users, 63% of Snapchat users, and 60% of Instagram users visit the site on a daily basis, and the majority of those who visit the sites on a daily basis report doing so several times a day.

Nine out of every ten teenagers go online multiple times a day. Teenagers have also reported their internet use as near-constant. 45% say they use the internet almost constantly and another 44% say they go online several times a day.

Case Study: YouTube is F*cked Up

YouTube launched in 2005 and quickly grew to be the largest video sharing platforms in the world. It was purchased by Google in 2006, and the first advertisements were rolled out in August 2007. 400 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute, and more than 1 billion hours of YouTube videos are watch a day. Most adults visit YouTube, but undocumented is the percentage of children watching, and there have been growing concerns about what they are watching. YouTube has been criticized for recommending disturbing content to children (Maheshwari, 2018)
Disturbing renditions of a children's TV show, Peppa Pig
such as conspiracy theory videos (Cook, 2018). This is an especially critical issue when considering just how large the unregulated industry of children’s video production is.

What disturbing content?

James Bridle, a technology writer, documented the dark side of YouTube for children. Video titles such as “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized”, or videos of Peppa Pig eating her father, drinking bleach, or using knives, can be found all over YouTube (Bridle, Something Is Wrong on the Internet, 2017). The Google subsidiary created YouTube Kids in order to try and regulate content by using algorithms to determine whether or not they are appropriate when uploaded, but even videos such as a “Claymation Spider-Man urinating on Elsa of frozen” slip past their filters (Maheshwari, 2017). It isn’t just animated videos, parents are filming their children and getting them to act out strange productions. All4TubeKids is a YouTube channel that features 674 videos variating on the theme of scary creepy clowns, acted out by a father and his young daughter.


Why are these being created?

Some of these videos are created by trolls, made deliberately to disturb the viewer. However, Bridle believes that the majority of these videos are designed in order to hook children to gain ad revenue. Content creators create thousands of videos with titles that employ variations of specific popular children’s phrases, such as the ones cited above, in order to game YouTube’s algorithms.

Issues

Addictive Qualities

Recently, social media companies have admitted that they intentionally designed their products to be addictive (Andersson, 2018; Lewis, 2017; Solon, 2017; Steinmetz, 2018). Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster stated that the objective of Facebook at the time of its development was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” (Solon, 2017). The development of the “like” button was created to give users a dopamine hit and the whole system was designed as a “social-validation feedback loop” to “[exploit] a vulnerability in human psychology” (Solon, 2017). Another tech insider, Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, helped social media companies use psychological tricks to make people develop habits. Such tricks included “varying the rewards people receive to create a craving or exploit negative emotions that can act as triggers” – boredom, loneliness, indecisiveness (Lewis, 2017).

Some designers who invented such addictive features such as the infinite scroll and the “like” button didn’t realize how addictive they could be and now feel guilty for their innovations. Aza Raskin, the designer of the infinite scroll, said that many designers were pushed to create addictive app features to serve the objectives of their company’s business model. For companies like Facebook, more time on the app means more exposure to advertisements, which means greater profits for the company. The next section describes how the addictive qualities embedded in SNS and social media have led to the creation of what Jaron Lanier calls “behaviour modification empires”.

No More White Space

Mobile phone app shows how screen use has taken up most of individuals' leisure time

Adam Alter, an author and associate professor of Marketing and Psychology at Stern School of Business consolidated information tracked on Moment, a mobile app that tracks mobile phone use. 2007 marked the day the iPhone launched. The grey bar represents our personal time, and the red bar represents screen time. Alter shows that the average American’s work day hasn’t changed that much, it is how people are using their personal time. He argues that the grey space is “incredibly important to us. That’s the space where we do things that make us individuals” (Alter, 2017). However, that grey space is being taken up by screen time. In 2017, the average number of hours spent looking at screens was 3 hours and 42 minutes and most of that time was spent on social media apps: news dating, social networking, gaming, entertainment – apps that don’t make people happy. Alter believes that screen time and social media apps “will lead to isolation, an inability to adequately interact socially, and ultimately depression” (Alter, 2017).

Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being

While there is evidence that shows using social media can raise self-esteem and increase one’s sense of belonging, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates that prolonged use of SM and SNSs is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and loneliness (Buglass, Binder, Betts & Underwood, 2016; Fox & Moreland, 2014; Vannucci, Flannery & McCauley Ohannessian, 2016; Lin et al,. 2016; Shensa, et al.,2017)

FOMO

Increased social media use has been linked with a fear of missing out (FOMO), “a psychological state in which people become anxious that others within their social spheres are leading more interesting and socially desirable lives” (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan, & Gladwell, 2013). Some hypothesize that the more individuals engage with SM, the more they are likely to feel as though they are missing out which leads to direct and significant decreases in wellbeing. Users of SM may find themselves in a cycle of experiencing FOMO, then seeking to boost their wellbeing by increasing SM use, although this spiral of behavior is “unlikely to offer them the sense of control or social belonging they increasingly crave” (Buglass, Binder, Betts & Underwood, 2016).

Psychological Well-Being

A study based on 1,787 U.S. adults aged 19-32, found that there were significant associations between social media use and depression. Participants who checked SM most frequently were 2.7 times more likely to report depression (Shensa, et al., 2017).

Young adults and teenagers are most susceptible to the negative effects of mobile addiction. Monitoring the Future, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 about how happy they are and how they spend their leisure time. Review of this data shows that, without exception, “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy” (Twenge, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, 2017). Since 2007, homicide rates among teens has declined. Unfortunately, the suicide rate has been increasing, and in 2011, the teen suicide rate was higher than the homicide rate and since then, suicide and depression rates have greatly increased.

Loneliness

The smartphone generation - fewer teenagers are hanging out with their friends and rates of depression have increased since the release of the iPhone in 2007

Loneliness can be described as “a psychological state which results from discrepancies between one’s desired state and one’s actual relationships” (Killeen, 1998). “The loneliness epidemic” affecting North America and other nations may be caused in part by heavy social media use. A survey of 20,000 Americans revealed that the average loneliness score among them was 44 on a scale of 20-80. Both Millennnials (45.3) and Gen Z (48.3), who are reported to use SM the most, scored the highest rating of loneliness among the generations. Social media creates the illusion of having many online “friends” but when it comes to it, only a few of those friends can be considered close enough to lean on. Unfortunately, SM “may provide people with a false sense of connection that ultimately increases loneliness in people who feel alone” (Cornblatt, 2009).

Teens were more likely to agree with the statements: “A lot of the times I feel lonely”, “I often feel left out of things” and “I often wish I had more good friends”. Teenagers today have more leisure time than Gen X teenagers, but the number of teens wo get together with their friends nearly every day has dropped by more than 40% from 2000-2015. Fewer teenagers are going to parties, but those who do, document these hangouts through various mediums: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. Those who are not invited experience acute FOMO.

Both loneliness and social isolation are associated with poorer health behaviours including smoking, physical inactivity, and poorer sleep. Further, there is substantial evidence that indicates individuals lacking social connects are at risk of dying earlier (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). People still need to fulfil their social needs through face-to-face interactions (FTF), but are spending less time hanging out in person, choosing instead to connect via technology. According to the Cigna survey (2018), it is important for people to engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions, as those who do, indicate a much lower loneliness score and better health than those who rarely interact FTF. Although virtual communities and social networks are great at connecting like-minded people, the findings reinforce that meaningful face-to-face interactions and feeling like one is part of the community are incredibly important for human beings.

Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles – Are They the Problem?

Digital communication technology and the internet have been able to expose users to a wide range information topics and opinions by dramatically reducing the cost of producing, distributing, and accessing this material. However, there are conflicting reports over whether personalized algorithms owned by social networks and search engines such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google have created filter bubbles “in which algorithms inadvertently amplify ideological segregation by automatically recommending content an individual is likely to agree with.” (Flaxman, Goel, & Rao, 2016) Some journalists may believe this “filter bubble” may lead to a user’s existence within an echo chamber, “in which individuals are largely exposed to conforming opinions” (Flaxman, Goel, & Rao, 2016). Facebook is a major focus when it comes to this issue; four in ten U.S. adults (43%) get their news from Facebook, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2018.

43% of American adults use Facebook as a pathway to news

Commentators such as Eli Pariser and Bill Gates believe that these algorithms help incubate individuals with like-minded people so that they are “not mixing and sharing and understanding points of view” (Delaney, 2017). Pariser believes that the issue with filter bubbles is that they are not transparent and are invisible. When a user searches Google or browses Facebook, they are unaware that they are receiving information that has been algorithmically sifted according to what it thinks the user wants. Even if a user is logged out, there are a number of other factors that Google takes into account: the user’s laptop, location, browser type - there is no standard Google anymore. Pariser worries that the filter bubble isn’t the only problem. What he calls the “crisis of authority” describes deliberately false information designed for political ends and content that has no factual basis but is opinion presented as fact. It is this misinformation that is circulating within these filter bubbles that creates an even more complicated issue.

It is important to note that others in the media believe that it is not just the algorithms, but the user’s own deliberate actions that push them down an echo chamber. They assert that the information and articles with opposing or differing view is available, users just choose not to engage with them (Hosanagar, 2016; Robson, 2018; Tangermann, 2018).

Algorithms, Advertising, and Automation

YouTube is an excellent example of the unintended consequences that can result from optimizing advertisements through an algorithmically automated system. Both James Bridle and Jaron Lanier assert that SM sites such as YouTube and Facebook deploy algorithms that are designed to show users content that is the most sensational (Lanier, 2018; Bridle, 2018). Because people react more to negative stimuli, this content rises to the top faster than positive stimuli, resulting in a system that is optimized for sensation – not variety. This is how one can go from watching a neutral debate about climate change to a “three-hour speech from a climate change denier” (Bridle, 2018) through YouTube’s autoplay recommendations. Although the founders of these companies may not hold such beliefs, their algorithms manipulate users by showing content that causes strong reactions because that is what gets the user to stay online longer.

Bridle (2018) asserts that there are two main issues with many social media companies that YouTube exemplifies.

1) The “Free with Advertisement” Business Model – which is the monetization of attention without care for the well-being of the consumer and without legitimate oversight or accountability over those creating the content.
2) Automation - the deployment of systems utilizing machine learning and algorithms to automate business processes without critically evaluating the societal and environmental implications of it’s use. The attitude that “once it’s out there, throwing our hands up and saying “Hey, it’s not us, it’s the technology” (Bridle, 2018).

The issues that plague algorithmically-driven systems such as YouTube and Facebook extend to many other systems: credit reports, insurance premiums, predictive policing systems, and sentencing guidelines. These automated systems are built and fed data that may be full of human errors and prejudice and are then launched without much oversight. Users then use these systems with the assumption that the information churned out is objective and truthful. This situation only becomes more concerning as artificial intelligence and machine learning enters more industries and it becomes harder to fully understand the logical reasoning behind AI decisions. The development of these systems becomes a greater issue of accountability, transparency, and the concentration of power.

Food For Thought

It can be said that there are certainly thousands of benefits of using digital technology, but there are also many issues with the implementation of digital technology. In order to combat issues that arise in the future we need to critically evaluate technology on three things: what is the technology, who is using it, and for what ends?

Realistically, not all technology is good, and more technology isn’t always the solution. As business students, we need to be aware of the socially, politically, and technologically charged environment that we are entering. We need to critically evaluate the technology that we are using, developing, and marketing and be thoughtful about the implications of presenting such technology to the world. We are the gatekeepers and the drivers of innovation. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we understand the world that we are building, and create one that is not exploitative and driven by profit, but transparent and equitable.

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