Cerebrum Winter 2020

NEUROETHICS

...[W]hether social media use actually causes depression or anxiety or whether teens who are already depressed or anxious turn to social media more frequently has yet to be pinned down.

The Social Media Conundrum

the number of consecutive days that two people have communicated with each other. That gives two teenagers something neither of them wants to lose. If they communicate 150 consecutive days, they are likely to take extreme measures to keep the streak going. Programmers on many social media also exploit outrage, an effective measure to get your attention— especially as it relates to politicians. Readers anxiously share their outrage at what someone did or said with friends who in turn pass it on. The danger is that outrage—and outright lies—can spread rapidly on social media, tearing apart the nation’s social fabric and weakening democratic efforts to find common ground. “I don’t know a more urgent problem than this,” Harris says. “Never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.” Parents, who are primarily responsible to oversee the use of social media by their children, face ethical issues of their own. They have the formidable challenge of monitoring what their children are communicating as well as time spent without snooping and invading their privacy. One idea is to set firm ground rules, perhaps in consultation with their children. They might note what technology leaders, who know better than anyone the dangers of social media, have done with their own families. In an article in the New York Times on Sept. 10, 2014, entitled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” Nick Bilton quotes several technology chief executives and venture capitalists who strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights and imposing tight time limits on weekends. They worry about exposure to harmful

check emails, search the internet, and send text messages. I also watch cable news on television obsessively to keep up with impeachment and election developments which are always described breathlessly as “breaking news” to hook the viewer. The most fascinating discovery for me, in searching the internet for ethical issues raised by social media, was the anguished hand-wringing by many key players in the tech companies that have produced the social media that so many people are worried about. Sean Parker, the billionaire first president of Facebook, gave a candid insider’s look in an interview with Axios co-founder and former Politico chief reporter Mike Allen on November 9, 2017. Parker described how social networks purposefully hook and potentially hurt our brains to maximize the time we spend on social media so that the tech companies can charge advertisers as much as possible to reach our eyeballs. Perhaps the chief insider critic is Tristan Harris, who founded a software company that Google bought out and then hired him as a product manager. Harris has described his concerns most fully in an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes on April 9, 2017 and in two TED Talks, the most recent one on July 26 that same year. Harris says the problem is not that people in the industry are evil or have bad intentions, it’s that they are racing against competitors to gain users’ attentions at all costs. One simple tactic is the use of “likes” and “dislikes” on Facebook and Instagram which keeps people checking in to see how they are doing. A more devious tactic described by Harris was employed by Snapchat, the chief way that American teenagers communicate. Programmers invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows

BY PHILIP M. BOFFEY R esearch on the impact of social media on the mental health of teenagers has yielded a confusing mix of conflicting and inconclusive results. Yet even amidst the uncertainty, the state of play has raised ethical issues for many participants in this arena, including tech companies, parents, clinicians, and researchers. The confusing landscape of research findings is ably described by Brenda Patoine in “Social Media & Teens’ Mental Health: No Simple Answers,” one of this issue’s articles. She notes the alarms raised by a steeply rising incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicide in young people that has occurred in parallel with the rise of the smart phone and the near-universal use of social media by young people, such as Snapchat and Instagram. But whether social media use actually causes depression or anxiety, or whether teens who are already depressed or anxious turn to social media more frequently, has yet to be pinned down. Some studies have found negative mental health effects, some have found no effects, and still others have found a positive protective effect. One complication, experts say, is that social media use doesn’t affect all teens the same way; its impact depends on the characteristics of the teens and how they use social media. In the interests of full disclosure, I am an octogenarian who almost never uses social media but who uses his iPhone 11 for hours at a time—an average of 3.5 hours a day over the past ten days to

8 DANA FOUNDATION CEREBRUM | WINTER 2020

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