Social media and the corporate invasion of adolescence

Published 9:18 am Monday, January 29, 2018


Contributing columnist

Psychologist Jean M. Twenge has some alarming statistics in her best-selling book, “iGen,” about the generation born between 1995 and 2012: “iGen high school seniors spent an average of 2 1/4 hours a day texting on their cell phones, about 2 hours a day on the internet, 1 1/2 hours a day on electronic gaming, and about a half hour on video chat.” That’s a total of six on-screen hours a day outside school time.

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As Betsy Morris wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 13, “The goal of Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Snap Inc. and their peers (some of the largest and most advanced companies in the world) is to create or host captivating experiences that keep users glued to their screens. . ..” Their business plan is ruthlessly simple: the more screen time, the more exposure to advertising inserts, the more revenue.

These corporations are in the business of creating addicts, and their greatest success has been with iGen, for whom smart phones have always been there. The word ‘addiction’ is used and over-used in many ways. Sometimes it even has a positive meaning when, for instance, we find a good novel addictive. Or it could refer to a special enthusiasm like jogging or golf. But what’s happening to iGen is very different and dangerous—a behavioral addiction of the sort defined by psychologist Mark Griffiths, with symptoms including “overriding preoccupation with the behaviour, conflict with other activities and relationships, withdrawal symptoms when unable to engage in the activity, an increase in the behaviour over time (tolerance), and use of the behaviour to alter mood state. Other consequences such as feeling out of control with the behaviour and cravings for the behaviour are often present.”

Twenge documents a list of harmful consequences increasing among adolescents. SAT scores are declining, especially in reading comprehension as teenagers avoid printed content. They are substituting online communication for social activities such as partying, going to each other’s homes, the mall, movies or restaurants together. “All in all,” writes Twenge, “iGen’ers are increasingly disconnected from human relationships—except perhaps with their parents.”

So how do media corporations get their hooks into potential addicts? How, for instance, did Facebook sustain a rate of 1.15 billion mobile daily active users for December 2016? The simple answer is that it delivers incessant positive reinforcements for desires and drives that we all have. Everyone wants to share experiences and be liked. For most of human history we used to get this psychic nurture in the physical presence of family and broader social groups with whom we interacted.

Now we can share an experience or a thought with hundreds of Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat friends without getting up from our couches or beds. And then be showered by likes and affectionate emojis. Or wonder about lack of response. Over and over again. With occasional digressions to stories and ads selected because of our past likes or those of friends. We keep going down the news feed from one friend’s post to another because we don’t want to miss out on what they’re doing and thinking about and be left alone with ourselves. So we’re lured into spending much more time online than we intended, or than we can afford.

The like function can induce pain as well as pleasure. As Twenge notes, girls are especially vulnerable to anxiety about body image, and will often obsess about posting the perfect, most attractive photos of themselves on Instagram (owned by Facebook), then anxiously checking the comments and the volume and identities of the likes they receive. They will seek relief from lack of approval by repeatedly updating and “improving” their online image, reinforcing the addiction.

Social media corporations are imposing on us a vast social experiment. As they rake in billions of dollars in profits by shaping the minds of iGen, we wait to see what kind of adult citizens result from this manipulation. What will their social relations be like as the thin, sweetened gruel of on-screen photos, videos and dangling messages increasingly replaces the richer diet of unprogrammed face-to-face interactions?

A healthy democratic society needs people who can think and plan for themselves instead of simply echoing memes created by others. Of course, we can never be completely self-made (despite the fantasies of Ayn Rand and capitalist individualism). But we can be contributing members of society by building on what we get from others. That is human agency, something we must never let our technology take away from us.

It is just this precious agency that social media corporations are undermining in all of us, but especially in iGen. As Tristan Harris, former design ethicist with Google, explained in an interview with Wired magazine:

“When we aren’t offline, we have to see that some of the world’s smartest minds are working to undermine the agency we have over our minds. We might enjoy the thing it persuades us to do, which makes us feel like we made the choice ourselves. For example, we forget if the next video [auto]loaded and we were happy about the video we watched. But, in fact, we were hijacked in that moment.”

Our wanting what comes next is induced in us by a corporation’s algorithm, creating the illusion of spontaneity.

Can private, for-profit media corporations ever behave differently? They have a boundless desire to enhance profits by taking up more of our time. Now that the FCC has discarded net neutrality, these corporations can more effectively shield us from content that dissents from corporate domination of our society.

There may be a light at the end of this dystopian tunnel. Chattanooga and other cities have succeeded in funding and building their own ISPs. Public ownership of ISPs could provide alternative networks that can give us the convenience and usefulness of smart phones without addicting teenagers to mindless distraction.