Cerebrum Winter 2020

One proposal would push the industry to change its business model from emphasizing “time spent” on a social media site to ‘time well spent.’

and sexting, or an online user asking to have sexual relations with them. Depending on the answers, the clinician might help craft a family media plan, schedule follow-up appointments, or refer the patient for behavioral health therapy. The ethical obligations on those who conduct research on social media is a muddle of conflicting opinions. A systematic review of the attitudes of the users of social media and the researchers who want to study their postings was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research on June 6, 2017. It found no “overarching consensus with regard to social media research ethics.” Respondents disagreed sharply, for example, on whether postings on social media should be considered public, like a letter to the editor, or a private communication, requiring some kind of informed consent. There was much more support for using aggregate statistics than for qualitative research relying on quotes. The authors, from universities in the United Kingdom, urged that guidelines for ethical conduct be formulated within the research community lest we miss the considerable potential of social media research, which can generate results much more quickly than the traditional published scientific literature. What can be done to overcome the devious tactics used by tech companies to ensnare teens in compulsively using and returning to social media? The tech companies themselves, responding to rising public concerns, have begun to offer technical fixes to mitigate screen addiction. Google has recently rolled out some experimental apps that give people help in controlling their usage. Various apps keep track of how many times you unlock your phone in a day in case you want to drive that number down, let you block work-related apps while you’re at home, and leisure-related

content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and kids becoming addicted to their devices. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, revealed in an interview with the Daily Mirror in the United Kingdom on April 21, 2017 that he banned his children from having mobile phones until they were 14, forbade phones at the dinner table, and set a curfew time after which screens could not be used so as to help his youngest get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Other guidance for parents was posted on December 15, 2017 at an online resource of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The crux: avoid blanket condemnations and tailor your approach to the individual child. Stressful factors that your children may feel include seeing people posting about events to which they haven’t been invited, feeling pressure to post positive and attractive comments about themselves, feeling pressure to get comments and likes on their posts, and having someone post things about them that they can’t change or control. Some of the author’s advice was similar to that from tech insiders, such as setting screen-free times before sleep, on car rides to school, and on the occasional weekend or vacation. Pediatricians must also cope with additional ethical burdens imposed by social media. An editorial in Pediatrics , a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published in May 2018, urged clinicians to expand the kinds of questions they ask young people to include queries about social media use. Such questions might include how much time they spend on social media sites in a typical day (more than 120 minutes would raise concern), whether they think they use social media too much, whether viewing social media increases or decreases their self- confidence, and whether they have personally experienced cyberbullying,

apps while you’re at work. These apps let you select and print out the crucial information you’ll need that day, such as schedules, important contacts, map directions, and more, so that you can go through the day without using your phone at all. Apple has introduced features that inform people how much time they’re spending on screen, how much of that time is devoted to various activities, and how to limit the time they spend on various apps and activities. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is testing a new policy in this country and abroad to hide visible likes on its platform. People will only be able to see the likes awarded their own photos but not how many likes other users have received. The goal is to reduce the anxiety caused by social comparisons. All these are steps in the right direction but how well these voluntary excessive screen time remains to be seen. If they fail to make a dent in the problem, lawmakers and regulators may need to push the industry to try harder or to change its business model.  The public, which buys and uses the phones and social media apps, has enormous power to change the landscape. We can push the industry to provide even more features to reduce screen time and improve the quality, not quantity, of our communications. We can also declare more and longer holidays from the tyranny of our phones. Those of us who have tried such temporary abstinence say it is liberating. l Phil Boffey is former deputy editor of the New York Times Editorial Board and editorial page writer, primarily focusing on the impacts of science and health on society. He was also editor of Science Times and a member of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes. approaches will work to reduce compulsive use of phones and


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