Jan. 26, 2018

TITLE: There's a wake up call on your smartphone

Let's take a little break from politics and talk about something arguably even more
important to our eventual success in the always-connected age: the rampant and worsening abuse of social networking

Social networking sites present themselves as, essentially, candy for the eye and mind. Everyone you like is there (and none of the ones you don't like) and you only see political and moral personal views that are 100 percent copacetic. The warning signs are all around us, particularly from many of the people who should know best: the ones who created it.

At a Nov. 2017 discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, former VP for User Growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, expressed what he called "tremendous guilt" for his part in creating the social behemoth and urged users to take a "hard break" from all forms of social media. "I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works," said Palihapitiya, who left Facebook in 2011 to start up a venture capital fund.

"No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth," he added. "And it's not an American problem this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem. Social media users adopt completely different 'personas' on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram... We are in a really bad state of affairs right now."

Palihapitiya went on to cite just one of countless grim examples; an incident in India where bogus WhatsApp messages about supposed kidnappings led to the lynchings of several innocent people (WhatsApp is owned by Facebook).

"I just don't use these tools anymore, I haven't for years," he noted.

Facebook responded to Palihapitiya's criticisms with a statement: "When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then, and as we have grown, we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We've done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we're using it to inform our product development."

Sounds good, but people from deep inside the industry continue to savage the industry. Former Facebook president Sean Parker recently told Axios that social networking is "exploiting a vulnerability in human society... It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."

In a CBS News interview, founder of Common Sense Media, Jim Steyer, was also critical of social media: "We're not suggesting the leaders of tech companies are evil but they, in many cases, have ignored the consequences of some of the downsides of the innovations they brought to our society."

And former Google engineer Tristan Harris revealed to "60 Minutes" last year that companies have a "whole playbook of techniques" to keep eyes locked to screens for every moment possible. And it's working. A recent Pew/Journal of Youth Studies study reported that 92 percent of teens go online daily.

Social networking is not going away any time soon. Make that never. And it's not going to modulate itself to benefit its intended targets any more than companies in the past were about to remove salt and fat from processed foods or caffeine from sodas or nicotine from cigarettes or carcinogens from lunch meat.

Until they had to.

In a market-based society, change usually only ever happens when average citizens decide to take their societal responsibilities seriously and make the behaviors of predatory systems unprofitable. Facebook, Twitter, and all the others are no different.

How we, as citizens, bring about that change is pretty straightforward: we use our smartphones and computers less and in only the ways WE choose. Adults must take steps to reduce both the amount of time and type of content we allow our kids to have access to just like we set good examples at the dessert section of the buffet line or in pointing out potentially addictive habits and behaviors.

Consider installing an app on their device like Offtime (iOS, Android), BreakFree (iOS, Android), or Freedom (iOS, Android) that curtail phone use after proscribed periods. And no phones at the dinner table. Or during any conversation with anything resembling a human being (called "phubbing," a combination of "phone" and "snubbing"). And, of course, we must change our own behavior before we demand they change theirs.

Change is almost never pleasant but, at the very least, take solace in knowing that change IS coming.

It has to.

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Multiple award-winning author Charles Carr has written thousands of columns and articles for many of So Cal's most noted publications. Thousands have attended his original theater productions. Contact him at charlescarr.com.