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Bill Bennett

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Stop worrying about kids and phones

Not everyone thinks phones have a negative effect on kids. At the New York Times Nathaniel Popper writes:

“A growing number of academics are challenging assumptions about the negative effects of social media and smartphones on children.”

Research by two psychology professors sifted through 40 studies examining links between social media use, adolescent depression and anxiety. They conclude the link is “small and inconsistent”.

Social media

In other words this isn’t about phones, it’s about social media. Phones are what people in the computer security business call the attack vector.

Earlier research published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 suggests there is a link between Facebook and depression. That was later revised.

Since then here have been many similar high profile reports. One researcher linked social media to teen suicide.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.”

“The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.”

With academics you have to take note of all the words. Odgers talks of ‘significant risk’. That doesn’t mean there is no risk. Her point is that the panic is overdone. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the risks.

The kids are alright

Odgers says: “In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.”

This is true. But do phones, or social media, reveal or amplify the problems?

While this story may make sense from an academic psychiatry point of view, there’s another dimension. We know social media outlets and their advertisers manipulate emotions because they have admitted as much and, in some cases, promised to improve future behaviour.

So by all means dial down your concerns about children and phones, but don’t wash your hands of the matter. There are things to worry about, they just are not as bad as excitable commentators would have you think.

We’ve let our tech define us. Now it’s out of control

At the Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff says our technology is now an entire environment. We live there. We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control

He says:

“We may come to remember this decade as the one when human beings finally realized we are up against something. We’re just not quite sure what it is.

“More of us have come to understand that our digital technologies are not always bringing out our best natures. People woke up to the fact that our digital platforms are being coded by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. This is the decade when, finally, the “tech backlash” began.

But it’s a little late.”

It is a long essay and not easy reading, especially at a time of year when most New Zealanders and Australians have switched off their work brains.

Yet, if you have the time, it is worth reading it all.

Rushkoff knows his stuff and offers some powerful insights. In the essay he runs through the key issues.

Issues are not new

To cut it short, he starts out by saying surveillance capitalism and manipulation are not new. They have long been part our online activity and in our apps for ages. It’s being going on for 20 years now.

He says while these ideas are getting all the attention today, things have moved on. Surveillance capitalism and manipulation may no longer be relevant concerns.

Rushkoff argues we now spend most of how waking hours bathing in the waters of Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google. In other words: “We have been shaped into who the data says we are”.

Join the party

Until now, the common response has been about joining in. There is pressure for young people to learn to code. I’m all for motivated, interested youngsters learning to code, it remains a good career choice.

We don’t have enough people tackling these issues from a social science or art point of view. (Rushkoff talks about liberal arts).

Writers, journalists, movie makers, artists and others have an important role to play. We can communicate and understanding what is going on from a non-engineering or financial perspective.

It’s a complex, deep essay. You may find it too much to absorb in a single reading. I’ve come back to it a few times.

A disappointing omission is that Rushkoff fails to make a connection between this and evidence that our digital lives make us less happy.

Take back control

One thing we can do to mitigate the problems is to take back control of our online experience. If you like to spend less time bathing in what is, if not a toxic soup, certainly something less than ideal.

How to fight back? First, do all the obvious hygiene things. Quit Facebook, choose apps and operating systems where there is room for privacy. Use alternatives to Google.

Embrace openness in all its aspects, not only Open Source software. Be wary of products like Android which are surveillance tools with a little usefulness thrown in.

Be especially wary of ‘free’ services. The price you pay may be far higher than you think.

You don’t have to learn to code. Indeed, unless you have an aptitude or an urge to do so, I recommend you don’t. People like you can read more printed books instead. But when you do, write and talk about your experiences and ideas.

Declare independence

Try to develop an independent online presence. One that isn’t part of a commercial data collection operation.

Learn how to use WordPress. Write a blog instead of posting articles on Facebook or Linkedin. Share things. Investigated ideas like the IndieWeb or Microblogging, both are refreshing. Build links with humans, not corporations or bots.

Rushkoff’s optimistic finishing points echo those broad ideas, even he dresses them in different language. The key here is to seize back as much control as you can.

You’ll be happier.

Online subscriptions: the second digital divide

Google and Facebook control almost all the world’s online advertising revenue. To get around this, news organisations and other online media use paywalls and subscriptions.

It makes perfect sense when there’s precious little advertising revenue to pay wages and other bills. Producing media costs money.

As Tom Foremski explains at ZDNet, this creates a new digital divide.

He writes: “The digital divide is about to get worse with the rise of subscription-based news media because of the failure of advertising to provide revenues for a sustainable business model.”

It’s another reason to not like Facebook. Another reason to fear Google.

Newspapers are not the only examples. Subscriptions, not advertising, pays for Video and sports streaming services. Pay-per-view is not new, but there is now more of it.

Here, the National Business Review hides all stories behind a paywall. The New Zealand Herald keeps the best stories for subscribers. They are not alone.

A second digital divide

As an upshot, low income people who manage to jump the first digital divide and get online, come up against a second divide. Subscription costs often shut them out from the best online content.

Free media has stepped in to fill the gap left by newspapers. Some free sites are good. the Guardian and RNZ both run excellent free news sites.

Some free media is darker. People with a hidden agenda and money to spend can publish plausible looking news. Although plausibility isn’t essential here. Manipulators have free run to bombard readers with lies and misleading information.

Propaganda

Look up an international story on Google News. You’ll find links to certain sites that are openly or not so openly propaganda sites. There are Russian and Chinese examples. In some cases intelligence agencies pay the bills.

Other free news services might push extremist ideologies or misinformation. Lies are common.

People who buy subscriptions end up better informed. They can make better choices. They may even live better, healthier, even happier lives than the poor souls on the wrong side of the second digital divide.

Zuckerberg undermines Facebook privacy plan

Facebook used its F8 developer conference to tell the world about plans to build a private social media service. Speakers, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, hammered home a conference slogan about the future being private.

Zuckerberg did nothing to redeem Facebook’s tarnished reputation.

Instead he undermined the message that he and his company wanted to send.

That joke isn’t funny any more

After promising users a more private feature he went on to joke about it with the audience.

He said:

“Now look, I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this, I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.”

One of the things I often tell people about these speeches is that you have to, metaphorically, listen to the words and the music.

Written down the words look plausible. If you see a video of the speech you’ll see Zuckerberg laughing. At least it made him sound insincere. You might worry that this young billionaire is laughing at his company’s users. He has publicly disrespected them in the past.

Zuckerberg’s jokey delivery certainly fell flat with the audience. That video clip could be set to echo down the years if Facebook’s privacy plan goes sour.

Zuckerberg tone-deaf

It’s another example of a tone-deaf response from the leader of a company that has swung elections and been accused of stirring up hate crimes.

If Zuckerberg didn’t think Facebook had a problem when he made his speech. It has one now. He did nothing to address the biggest question hanging over Facebook: why should anyone trust the company?

There’s another question arising from the F8 conference keynote. Facebook is a huge business. It’s worth about half a trillion US dollars. It doesn’t make things. It’s not really a software company in the traditional sense.

Switching focus from inserting targeted advertising in a user’s social media feed to helping them communicate privately is a huge jump. There is a relation between the two, but it doesn’t map well.

Appy talk

Facebook already has a lot of messaging. There’s the Facebook Messenger. There’s also WhatsApp and the messaging feature in Instagram. Integrating the various messaging tools and building them into a new, useful service isn’t going to happen overnight.

Making messaging private means using encryption. Facebook says it will use this technology. Yet encryption is something governments don’t like. Given that a lot of governments also don’t like or trust Facebook that could see the company tied up in complex regulations.

My other fear about the news from F8 is there is too much focus on cosmetic changes to the business. Take the site makeover that was revealed. This may be intended to send a message that Facebook has changed, but it’s more a case of the leopard changing his spots.

Likewise Facebook’s Secret Crush feature. It could turn out to be creepy if poorly implemented. But you can’t help thinking it’s main purpose is to distract people.

New Zealand, France to halt social media terror promotion

New Zealand and France will work together to make it harder for terrorists to broadcast violence through social media. The move is a response to the March 15 attack in Christchurch which the terrorist streamed live.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris next month to discuss plans. They timed their meeting to coincide with a G7 digital ministers Tech for Humanity event and a separate Tech for Good summit.

A media statement from Jacinda Ardern says:

“We all need to act. That includes social media providers taking more responsibility for the content that is on their platforms and taking action so that violent extremist content cannot be published and shared.

“It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism. This meeting presents an opportunity for an act of unity between governments and the tech companies.”

Social media terrorist toolkit

This nails the problem. Facebook and other social media outlets have become part of the terrorist’s toolkit. In part they have spent recent years encouraging ever more extreme and violent content on their sites.

Social media companies know that extreme material resonates with audiences. In effect, they have turned people’s anger into rivers of gold. Rather than calm things down, they have learnt that ramping up fear and hate is a lucrative business.

Profit explains their reluctance to act in the past.

Inevitable

Given this, it was inevitable that a terrorist would one day choose to live-stream the murder of dozens of people. It happened in Christchurch, but the live atrocity could have been anywhere.

It’s good to see Jacinda Ardern work with Macron on this. Neither New Zealand nor France are able to fight these battles alone. It’s also good to involve the G7. The more allies the better. It will take co-ordination from many governments to rein-in the social media giants.

Until now the likes of Facebook, Google with YouTube and Twitter have acted amorally.

Above the law?

If they appear to believe they are above the law, that’s because in a sense they are.

The social media giants are all US-based. They can point to that country’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech as a justification for not policing content loaded on to their sites.

What’s more, the US gives them Section 230 protection. In effect, they have legal immunity for what they publish, although there are exceptions. This sets up a climate where the big social media companies act as if they can do whatever they want.

Reputation not considered

In an ideal world, these companies would fear their reputations and long-term business prospects are risk if they don’t take more responsibility. We’re not at that point yet.

Australia has laws which could see them prosecuted for actions like showing the Christchurch terrorist attach video. Incidentally, there’s a report this morning saying these images are still online and easy to find.

Facebook, Google and Twitter can afford to laugh in the face of small governments. To a degree that’s been their strategy until now. Even medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom are openly disrespected by social media executives. Facebook even dismisses ad hoc groups of countries working together.

New Zealand, France and the G7 are a more powerful combination. They can act together. Yet that last sentence has an important word act. The countries must do more than just bat ideas around in a talk fest. They must take collective action if anything is going to change.

I talked to Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon about the NZ, France effort to tackle violence on social media