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Blade Runner, November 2019: 6 harms linked to social media and mobile tech

It’s Blade Runner month. The original movie was set in November 2019 in LA (screenshot of the opening scene above) and includes the famous line from the story’s hero Richard Deckard – “Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit it’s not my problem“.

“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they are a benefit it’s not my problem”

Well, the robots haven’t taken over (yet), but it’s November 2019, and Tristan Harris and friends at the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) are using Deckard’s logic of a ledger of benefits and hazards – for social media and mobile tech.

Instead of retiring ‘replicants’ the CHT wants to retire the harms associated with social media and mobile tech, and to this end, they have drawn up a hit list of six harms to target (or retire in Blade Runner speech).

Like Deckard, in Blade Runner, the CHT is concerned with only the hazards or harms; social media and mobile tech are like any other technology, either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit it’s not our problem‘. So we get a “Ledger of Harms” six in total from CHT (but no balancing benefits in the balance sheet).

Whilst biased to negative effects, the idea of a ledger is potentially useful because it classifies and summarizes six key anxieties and concerns over social media and mobile tech.

What we need now is 1) more evidence to support (or refute these claims) and 2) to balance the books with a complementary Ledger of Benefits of social media and mobile tech. These two additions will allow people to make informed trade-off decisions about their use of tech.

In practice, the CHT list of harms needs cleaning up for logical coherence (the first four are what is harmed (degrading attention, mental health, democracy, and relationships), the fifth who is harmed (children – but not adults?) and the sixth harm is a standalone misapplication of the Golden Rule (do unto others..). But I’m sure this will evolve.

In the meantime, here’s a summary of the current CHT Ledger of Harms (with direct links to full sources for headline stats and flagship studies).

Ledger of Social Media and Mobile Tech Harms

1. Attention

Loss of ability to focus without distraction

Headline stat: 72% of teens and 48% of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts, social-networking messages, and other notifications

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 191): Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacityJournal of the Association for Consumer Research2(2), 140-154.

2. Mental Health

Loneliness, depression, stress, loss of sleep, and even increased risk of suicide

Headline stat: People who were instructed to use Facebook passively (i.e., scrolling without commenting or posting) for just ten minutes felt 9% worse at the end of the day, because they felt more envious of others

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 304) Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., … & Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General144(2), 480.

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 129): Carter, B., Rees, P., Hale, L., Bhattacharjee, D., & Paradkar, M. S. (2016). Association between portable screen-based media device access or use and sleep outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 170(12), 1202-1208.

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 24): Allcott, H., Braghieri, L., Eichmeyer, S., & Gentzkow, M. (2019). The welfare effects of social media (No. w25514). National Bureau of Economic Research.

3. Relationships

Less empathy, more confusion and misinterpretation

Headline stat: 67% of a 723-person sample of young Finnish Facebook users between ages 15 and 18 have been exposed to hate material online (nb not only on FB)

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 392): Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation qualityJournal of Social and Personal Relationships30(3), 237-246.

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 20): Schroeder, J., Kardas, M., & Epley, N. (2017). The humanizing voice: Speech reveals, and text conceals, a more thoughtful mind in the midst of disagreement. Psychological Science, 28(12), 1745-1762.

4. Democracy

Propaganda, lies, an unreliable and noisy space to talk

Headline stat: Search results can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, with virtually no one aware they are being manipulated

Headline stat: In a study measuring the speed of false news vs. true news, false news spread six times faster. This is because falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth

Headline stat: 69% of participants in a study on false news formed “rich and detailed false memories” that supported fabricated news they were shown. Participants were also 88% less likely to identify the story as false when it aligned with their beliefs. (nb this study did not specifically look at fake news in social media, but tv, word of mouth or online)

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 1029): Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146-1151.

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 239): Epstein, R., & Robertson, R. E. (2015). The search engine manipulation effect (SEME) and its possible impact on the outcomes of electionsProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(33), E4512-E4521.

5. Children

Children face new challenges learning and socializing

Headline stat: Children who are cyberbullied are 3x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation than non-bullied children, while those who experience “traditional” bullying are 2x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation.

Flagship study (Google Scholar – cited by 420): Van Geel, M., Vedder, P., & Tanilon, J. (2014). Relationship between peer victimization, cyberbullying, and suicide in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics168(5), 435-442.

6. Do Unto Others

Many people who work for tech companies — and even the CEOs — limit tech usage in their own homes

Headline Quote

“I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that sh%t. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that sh%t… The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” –

Chamath Palihapitiya – former FB VP for user growth

Headline Quote

“We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Steve Jobs – former CEO Apple

“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they are a benefit it’s not my problem”
Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.