Throughout the history of mankind, technology has served as an immense force for good. From the beginning of civilization, new agricultural techniques allowed for mankind to specialize. The Industrial Revolution led to an unprecedented boom in the human population. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s saved around a billion people from starvation. Advancements in rocket and materials science, along with the development of computers, brought man to the moon in 1969. In the late 1990s, as the Internet allowed for an unprecedented flow of information across the globe, it appeared that mankind was truly headed for exponential progress. While technology has occasionally wreaked devastation – many positive advancements were, historically, driven by humans attempting to develop more efficient ways of killing other humans – overall, the Internet should have brought about massive positive developments with little negative developments.
As we close the blinds on 2018 and look at 2019, however, it appears that technology’s drawbacks are tearing into the flesh of our society. While the internet has brought benefits to society, mainly in the form of making information easily accessible, it has also resulted in many negative consequences to the United States of America as a whole – particularly in the biggest area of the internet, social media. Social media’s original goal of connecting people has long been superseded by a goal of squeezing every last cent out of every last user.
On average, people use social media for a whopping 135 minutes per day, which translates to around 35 days per year. During this massive period of time, social media companies bombard users with advertisements and harvest data by the petabyte from users. They feed this data into dopamine-optimizing algorithms, designed to keep one chained to their screen, clicking on ads, generating data, and fuelling a vicious cycle. Former Facebook President Sean Parker described Facebook as something which “exploited a vulnerability in human psychology”. It is no wonder that medical researchers are finding a growing correlation between depression and social media usage – social media, by viciously pumping dopamine into the human body, desensitizes the brain to other sources of reward.
Social media’s impact on physical health is less obvious than the impact on mental fitness, but it is still a noticeable and worrying impact. As smartphone and internet usage surge, obesity rates also increase, particularly among youth. While part of this can be attributed to negative changes in our diet, as well as the increase in white-collar desk jobs instead of blue-collar manufacturing or construction jobs, it is evident that spending several hours a day in front of a screen is not beneficial to one’s health. Furthermore, screen time negatively impacts sleep, as blue light emitted by smartphone screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone (the body naturally perceives blue light as a sign of daytime). Overall, it appears that heavy use of social media leads to both physical and mental weakness.
This is not to mention the innumerable negative impacts that social media has on our greater society – the sum of all individuals. The enormous power that social media giants have over the flow of information poses a threat to order and the rule of law. The worst example of this is from India, where disinformation and rumors, spread via WhatsApp group chats, leads to mob violence and outright murder. Thirty people have been killed in India due to accusations that they abduct children, and the problem is further inflamed by religious tensions in the country. Disinformation – sometimes spread by foreign powers such as Russia or Iran – reached 126 million people via Facebook over the course of the 2016 election. Cambridge Analytica’s then CEO, Alexander Nix, openly boasted on how his company utilized Facebook data to manipulate the subconsciousness of millions of individuals, in order to influence their vote in the 2016 Republican Primaries (and presumably the General Election). This is not to mention the various controversies surrounding Facebook or Twitter regarding their political biases.
How can we face these problems as a society? For starters, we must have technologically competent individuals in our government. When Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify to Congress in April, lawmakers were granted a tremendous opportunity to probe deep into the various problems created by Facebook. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the president pro-tempore of the Senate, asked how Facebook, a free service, made money (to which Zuckerberg replied that they run ads). Representative Billy Long of Missouri appeared to conflate “FaceMash” (a rating site Zuckerberg ran for a short time at Harvard before it was shut down) with Facebook. Lindsey Graham questioned whether “is Twitter the same as what you do?”, inquiring about whether Facebook is a monopoly. Georgia Representative Buddy Carter asked Zuckerberg about piracy on Facebook – a problem which is universal to nearly every internet platform in existence. We cannot trust these individuals to play a part in regulating social media when they do not understand what social media even is.
We must also create greater awareness around social media. Social media is a drug, which must be regulated like a drug and treated like a drug. Public information campaigns regarding the issues of psychological and physical health would benefit our schools. The algorithms designed to chain users to screens must be regulated – perhaps these algorithms may only optimize for a certain amount of time on a specific site, rather than optimizing for as much time as possible on the site.
Social media is one of technology’s greatest successes in its ability to connect people across continents. However, this same goal has resulted in many problems for society – problems which may outweigh the benefits of social media. It is the role of tech companies, governments, and individuals to find the optimal point which both maximizes the positive, connective aspects of social media and minimizes the negative, malicious effects of social media.