Social media has been getting a pretty bad rap over the last few years. Whether it’s books such as Irresistible by Adam Alter where he explores the addictive nature of social media platforms, or more recently the documentary The Social Dilemma focusing on the controversial algorithms that are designed to keep us all hooked in.
It’s all rather doom and gloom!
But is it? ...I ask myself as I sit writing this blog in a cafe in the north of Thailand, taking advantage of the free wifi delivered with my latte; my iPhone alerts intermittently reminding me of the next meeting and my smartwatch flashing to let me know I should get up and walk around once in a while.
As with all things, there is a yin and a yang to the growing relationship we have with technology. We absolutely rely on it and in a year of social distancing and zero travel, it’s been the backbone to keeping us all connected.
- So where do we find this balance between being ever more connected but avoid the increased polarisation we are seeing with online communities?
- And how do we ensure characteristics such as empathy, which can be applied easily in person, are also embedded within the platforms of the future?
Let’s talk about empathy
Social media and empathy are often presented as mutually exclusive of one and other. One is inherently self-centered, promotes unachievable beauty and living standards, and chalked full of misinformation and disinformation, where the other is almost entirely the opposite, requiring compassion and emotional intelligence.
It’s no secret that social media is not empathetic by design and there have been numerous studies conducted to showcase the general decrease in empathy and increase in social media use and their correlation. However, there have also been recent studies to measure whether social media does actually affect empathy negatively and the general findings seem to prove the opposite.
Active social media use, meaning regularly engaging with content by liking or commenting and using in-app chat functions, can actually encourage positive psychosocial development and empathetic skills that are transferable offline. Those studies show that there are positive effects on both affective empathy and cognitive empathy when social media use and engagement with content is prevalent.
Still, there are also numerous downsides as many social media platforms have been engineered to encourage longer user engagement. Functions that are addictive such as the endless scroll and the need to constantly demand user attention, means we’re seeing reduced attention spans, degrading the opportunity to employ cognitive empathy because cognitive empathy requires context and nuance.
Whether social media positively or negatively affects a person’s empathy levels depends on how and how often a user engages with the platforms. There is therefore an intrinsic relationship between social media and empathy, both beneficial and adverse depending on context.
Ethical practices at the centre of technology development
Movement towards ethical practice seems to have been slower within the social media industry, but it is possible to identify examples of ethicality in-built and equal in importance to profitability, or where it has been adopted on top of a traditionally capitalist framework because it constitutes an effective market element.
The Center for Humane Technology raises awareness and drives change through high-profile presentations to global leaders, public testimony to policymakers and heads of state, and mass media campaigns reaching millions.
“The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely. We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigour as privacy and other digital rights.” ― Tristan Harris
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have since teamed up with the Center for Humane Technology and added “Time Well Spent” features to the site. These features allow the user to set a time limit for how much time they want to spend on the app daily, reminders that let them know when they’re approaching the time limit, and the ability to turn off notifications.
Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Technology also regularly testifies to heads of state about the dangers of technology as it is. They have drawn up a comprehensive plan for the path forward, titled A New Agenda for Tech.
Free market driven or more governmental control?
As mentioned earlier, social media platforms are designed to push for prolonged user engagement because the longer a user is engaged with a platform, the more money the ad-based platforms make. Generally there are two ways to enforce regulation, the first via the free market and the second via government-imposed regulation.
With profit generally being prioritised above all else in the free market, it’s hard to imagine that social media companies would choose to be more ethical and empathetic unprompted. But, there is a consistently growing desire by people generally to support businesses committed to ethical practices and social media platforms are not exempt from this desire.
This provides the incentive for the platforms to alter their business models to meet the desire of the users and bolster long-term use.
Regulations imposed on social media companies vary depending on the country, but in individualistic nations like the US government controls could cause an upset among the public. Regulation also tends to raise the barrier to entry, which might further monopolise existing social media companies.
But there are a few long-time tech industry professionals that say the companies are unlikely to change in any meaningful way without government regulation.
We need to think about how tech can bring people together not cause them to retreat inwards to protect themselves from tech. Anytime tech can be used to connect people, share the human condition, and help people feel validated, cared for and “seen” – then we are on the right track. Avani Parekh - Strategic Partner Manager | Community Partnerships | Facebook
It is important to note that social media companies have self-imposed regulatory policies that dictate what kind of content is allowed on their platforms and what isn’t. This is not the same as government regulation as they have decided for themselves these regulations and could change or revoke them at any time.
There have also been numerous features introduced by social media platforms that allow for self-checks on usage. These features let the user set a time limit on daily use, remove notifications and generate a pop-up when all recent posts have been viewed.
Switch off, let go, or hope for positive change?
There are obvious benefits and consequences to social media use and the foundation to create a more ethical and empathetic interaction with technology, will come through adjustments such as removing addictive features and reigning in or redesigning algorithms that collect endless amounts of personal data.
Moreover, digital literacy campaigns that help users identify what information is reliable versus what is not, could stop the spread of disinformation without relying on regulations by the government.
Some argue to deactivate accounts and be done with social media all together but is that really sensible when it’s not only social media? Our relationship with technology is everywhere - at home, in our vehicles and within a multitude of daily interactions.
Whether we like it or not tech is here to stay and our relationship with it is likely to become ever more intimate. And so the importance to consistently foster healthier interactions is more pressing than ever.
There's clearly need for change and thankfully that seems to be happening in small pockets but also growing in momentum.
Introducing Bailey Thomas - contributing writer
Bailey Thomas is a college student studying International Relations. She aspires to create a more harmonious international arena by fostering strong diplomatic relationships with political and sovereign entities. Bailey is currently on an internship with Task. She was the researcher and contributing writer on this blog post.
You can connect with Bailey via her LinkedIn profile.