Social media rots our brains. We have a moral obligation to pay attention to the war in Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean we should carry the war in our pockets and feast on its tragedy on our lunch break.
As I wrote last week, our addiction to digital technology and social media is really damaging: It weakens our ability to focus, reduces our productivity, makes our teens anxious, and makes us all less empathetic and more tribal. But it also brings enormous benefits. A world without these technologies would be a poorer place in many ways. So what to do?
There are four main ways we can address this issue, from personal to political. Since we all have a mosquito’s attention span, I’ve reduced it to a simple rubric. I call them the Four Rs: Responsibility, Reason, Reform and Regulation.
1. Take responsibility
As with smoking, drinking, and gambling, the fundamental problem with addiction technologies lies in the way society and business interact to incentivize self-injurious behavior. But as with these other vices, systemic change will come too slowly and too late to help you with your addiction. So you have no choice but to try to fix yourself first.
That New York Times just confirmed this. In a memo this month, Editor Dean Baquet warned his reporters that over-reliance on Twitter “could be particularly detrimental to our journalism as our feeds become echo chambers,” and urged reporters to “significantly reduce how much time.” you spend platform”.
The internet is full of good tips on how to do this. To break his addiction, Johann Hari, the author of Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attentionHe rented a beachfront room in Provincetown for three months and left his smartphone behind. It’s not worth much as a model, he admits, but his book provides solid advice for habit change, even as he argues that the real struggle is societal.
Tips include applying the 10 minute rule – “when you feel the urge to check your phone, wait 10 minutes”. Disable your notifications. Switch your phone screen to black and white (the bright colors, especially the red badges, are meant to distract you). I’ve vastly improved my Twitter experience by ignoring the silly home feed and creating a topic-based list of experts to follow.
But even more important than your own addiction is that of your children. A school lecture once a year by a guest speaker warning them about sexting and online shame is better than nothing — but not much.
Social media addiction is having a profound impact on how our children learn and how they interact with the world. Combating this addiction should be an integral part of their training, not a symbolic addition.
Well done, this is a topic they will respond to. Your generation is deeply committed to identity politics and social justice. Social media companies manipulate this for profit. In doing so, they hack children’s identities and corrupt them. Our children need to learn how this happens and what to do about it. You will benefit from this information. And they have the energy to fight back.
2. Use your reason
The key information in this battle is this: social media is meant to make you emotional, so it’s monetized. Its algorithms reward emotional content, and that content keeps users on the platforms and exposes them to more ads. In principle, this is no different from other media, but faster and more intense – and therefore more dangerous.
The simplest and most concise guide to this problem that I have read is a short book entitled objectivity by the late Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health guru. The media plays on our instinct for the dramatic, warns Rosling. In order to compensate for this, we must practice “objectivity”.
Consuming the news more factually means recognizing how it affects your emotions, recognizing that “good news” rarely makes the news and looking elsewhere for it, reducing your exposure to the incessant stream of bad news, and taking the time to take before you act on this news anxiety and panic subside. “Calm down before you proceed,” he writes. In other words, pause before you tweet.
3. Demand Reform
The break is crucial. In the early days of Twitter, retweeting was a manual process of copying a tweet, pasting it into a new tweet, and prefixing it with “RT.” Then a Twitter engineer, Chris Weatherell, invented the retweet button. Suddenly, retweeting was instant — it hardly required a thought process. The effect was that of giving a “four-year-old a loaded gun,” Wetherell was quick to note, causing fake and abusive content to go viral almost immediately.
Wetherell, who has since left Twitter, has argued — along with other social media critics — that the retweet process requires more friction. Forcing people to pause gives time to think, and that thinking helps diminish the tribal, emotional quality of the debate. This is the kind of reform that can come from within the platforms – if pushed.
A key reform is algorithmic transparency, embraced by Elon Musk – now Twitter’s largest shareholder – and endorsed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Social media is based on secret algorithms that decide what content you see when you open your app and are optimized for virality.
Opening these algorithms up for scrutiny and competition could address this issue. Users could choose to use algorithms that reflect their needs, not those of the platforms’ advertisers. Dorsey left Twitter last year and has since reflected ruefully on the impact of Twitter and other internet corporations, saying earlier this month that they had “really damaged” the internet. “I realize that I am partly to blame and I regret it,” he tweeted. The pressure for reform from Silicon Valley is growing.
4. Regulate them
The fact that these corporations attained such power and scale so quickly dates back to a remarkable American legislative innovation in the mid-1990s known as Section 230. This ensured that what we now call “platforms” – but which in many crucial respects is a form of online publisher – could not be held responsible for any third party content they published, nor for any “good faith” attempts to moderate that content will.
They also benefit from an American legal interpretation that companies whose product is free for users cannot be called monopolistic. The result was that these companies operated with unprecedented – and unsustainable – freedom.
That freedom was severely curtailed last week when the EU agreed new laws to regulate big tech. The new Digital Services Act, coupled with the Digital Markets Act agreed earlier this year, will “represent the most significant overhaul of current legislation [the tech platforms’] Operation in more than two decades”, judged the Ffinancial times. Both laws have yet to be approved, but this is considered a formality.
As with the GDPR, Europe aims to set the gold standard for regulation: other jurisdictions are likely to follow. Even if this is not the case, technology companies will have a hard time justifying the application of lower standards in other markets. Among other things, the legislation will boost algorithmic transparency, forcing platforms to fight misinformation and restrict ad targeting. It could have unintended consequences – for example, if more content monitoring offers a license for more monitoring or excessive censorship. By and large, however, regulation is progressing.
Nonetheless, reform and regulation are cumbersome processes over which Ireland’s real influence is small. Changing the way we individually use our social media is difficult and has little impact on those around us. The only area where we can make an immediate difference and drive systemic change is in the education we give to our children. We need to educate them, train them and give them the opportunity to first take control of their own use of these technologies, as well as the market and regulatory frameworks in which these technologies are deployed.
Unfortunately, this is not a headline-grabbing manifesto; The good news is that it is very accessible. We just have to focus.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/how-society-can-finally-wake-up-and-shake-off-the-shackles-of-social-media-41581145.html How society can finally wake up and shake off the shackles of social media