"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."
It's "ripping apart the social fabric of how society works."
Drugs? Violent video games? No, those are quotes from former Facebook execs Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, respectively, when asked recently to take stock of the social network they helped create.
They're not the only ones; gadget makers, app creators, and social media giants are now grappling with the ethical responsibilities of how their products affect consumers and society. A dozen or so years into the modern smartphone and social media era (Facebook launched in 2004, the iPhone in 2007), a growing movement within Silicon Valley is taking a more critical stance on its own technology.
Our cover story in this month's PCMag Digital Edition is a deeply reported look at tech addiction and how modern apps, devices, and games are games are designed with frictionless ease to keep you engaged. It's also about the steps users can take to modulate their tech usage and take back control of their digital experiences, instead of letting them control you.
The other side of that story is what the tech industry can and should do about it. We spoke to Facebook, Apple shareholders, psychologists and experts, and the nonprofits leading the tech addiction movement in Silicon Valley.
This companion feature isn't about vilifying the tech industry. Rather, it's about examining the responsibility that both app and device makers and consumers have to encourage healthy tech use, and the ethical questions of building apps specifically for kids.
"I think there's an increased sense of accountability that these companies are making stuff that is addictive; that is affecting children, adults, adolescents, and that they have some responsibility to at least educate, warn, acknowledge, and maybe even help fund research and treatment," said Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (CITA) in Hartford, CT.
Pushing for Change
Parker and Palihapitiya's statements made headlines, but some of the most organized efforts within Silicon Valley to change public perception about technology—and advocate for tech itself to change—are coming from two groups: San Francisco nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, and the recently formed Center for Humane Technology (CHT).
The CHT is the brainchild of former Apple, Facebook, Google, Lyft, and Asana execs. It preaches "humane design," which frames device and app design in terms of vulnerability: How are we vulnerable to overstimulation or "micro-targeted persuasion" from digital platforms?
The CHT's executive director and co-founder is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. The CHT's leadership, advisors, and supporters also include early Facebook investor Roger McNamee, former Apple and Google communications exec Lynn Fox, former Facebook execs Dave Morin and Sandy Parakilas, Lyft president John Zimmer, and Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein, who helped create Facebook's Like button.
Humane Design calls for device makers and social networks to redesign their experiences to "protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, [and] protect our time in relationships." It's also about changing app stores from places where apps compete to one with a "marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society." To help engineers and UX designers build more humanely designed products, the center is putting together a website called the Ledger of Harms. The site will offer up-to-date research on the health effects of tech use, and a guide for creating healthier digital devices and experiences.
On the advocacy front, the CHT is partnering with Common Sense Media on a $7 million campaign called "The Truth About Tech." Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer described it as a multi-year public education and public awareness campaign to inform parents, teachers, and students about the potentially harmful effects of technology.
As part of the campaign, Truth About Tech content will also be distributed this fall to more than 55,000 K-12 schools that participate in the Common Sense Schools program. The effort also includes $50 million in donated media and airtime from Comcast, DirecTV, and other distribution partners.
>Steyer said "Truth About Tech" is modeled in some ways on anti-smoking campaigns.
"We've been careful not to demonize the tech industry, in the way that I think the tobacco industry can be demonized. But it shouldn't be lost on people that we called it the Truth About Tech campaign," said Steyer. "We do believe it's about changing behavior. It also includes addiction and design issues to explain to kids that they're being manipulated. So in the same way that that tobacco campaign was about changing your behavior, we want to make you aware of the consequences and negative impacts."
Common Sense has been around since the early 2000s, tackling topics such as screen time, tech addiction, social media, and smartphone parenting. Steyer stressed that the organization isn't anti-tech; Common Sense works with tech companies and also reviews a wide range of tech and media. He said the big change in partnering with the Center for Humane Technology is working with tech company insiders who can explain how these products are designed.
"Tech companies, at least some of them, are in an arms race for our kids' attention. That's where the addiction stuff comes in, because they've created various products and apps and techniques like Snapchat streaks, for example," said Steyer. "Tristan and the team that he's put together can talk more specifically to people about how companies, particularly like Facebook, Instagram, etc., have, by design, created products and platforms that can intentionally addict people."
There is some pushback to this idea within the tech industry. Nir Eyal, an expert in behavioral design and author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, said it's important to think about how a UX design technique is used: "Tristan talks about how Snapchat is evil for using streaks. But so does Duolingo, to teach people languages. It's not the technique; it's the end," he said.
Eyal does think that at a certain point, tech companies have a responsibility to moderate use, because they have the data to do it. He pointed to developer network Stack Overflow, which caps the number of points you can earn when you've spent more than 20 hours a week on the platform.
Eyal referred to it as a "use and abuse" policy: "If you use a product more than a certain number of hours per week, companies could reach out and say, 'Hey, you are showing behavioral triggers here that may indicate that you're struggling with a larger problem. Can we help?'"
For consumers, Common Sense's broader ad campaign began last year (before CHT joined) with a series of short ads called #DeviceFreeDinner. These are comical depictions of the all-too-common current family dynamic of parents and children scrolling on their smartphones during dinner. Common Sense even partnered with Will Ferrell and Funny or Die on a series of spots.
The #DeviceFreeDinner ads deconstruct the misconception that tech users can multi-task. The CITA's Dr. Greenfield said scrolling through a social feed while having a conversation at the dinner table creates the illusion of bilocation. It's also a double standard with some parents.
"One of the things we know about families we treat is that if kids are overusing technology, often the parents are too," said Greenfield. "So if you don't change the family pattern around how, when, and where to use technology, you're going to end up with a kid who's going to say, 'Well, you don't want me to use it as much, but look at you.'"
Common Sense and CHT's partnership extends to policy and advocacy efforts as well. As the national conversation turns toward regulating the tech industry, the coalition is focusing on two key pieces of legislation: a Senate bill being drafted by Democrat Edward Markey to commission research on technology's impact on children's health, and a California bill prohibiting the use of digital bots without identification. Steyer said the goal is to advocate to both government and industry about how tech should be regulated, with decisions grounded in independent, non-partisan research.
Kids and Tech
Tech companies are also keenly aware of the sensitive role technology plays in child development, education, and parenting. Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are doing plenty of research and advocacy on their own and are building products specifically designed to provide safe online environments for kids. But it hasn't exactly gone smoothly.
>In 2015, Google launched YouTube Kids, and Facebook launched the Messenger Kids app last December. Parents have major benefits and concerns to weigh with experiences like these. Messenger Kids was met with significant backlash, mainly because of concern about giving young kids social media accounts. And YouTube Kids has had a slew of issues, including showing kids inappropriate content and alleged improper collection of children's data. The app only recently gave parents full control over what their children see in the app.
Apple devices are bought and used in schools across the country, and the company just rolled out a new iPad specifically for schools. Still, Apple got a message from its shareholders earlier this year to start taking its child development responsibilities more seriously. Activist investor JANA Partners LLC and CALSTRS, the California State Teachers' Retirement System, collectively own about $2 billion in shares. In January, they sent an open letter calling on Apple to take a more proactive approach in how children and young users consume its products.
>The letter cites a host of research. One APA survey of more than 3,500 US parents found that 58 percent worry about the influence of social media on their child's physical and mental health. Forty-eight percent said regulating their child's screen time is a "constant battle," and 58 percent say they feel like their child is "attached" to their phone or tablet. The shareholders also partnered with experts: Harvard Medical professor Dr. Michael Rich, who runs the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) in Boston, and professor Jean Twenge, the author and psychology researcher who coined the term "iGen."
Twenge recently spoke with Dan Costa, PCMag's Editor-in-Chief, about how those growing up with smartphones always within their reach experience different behavior patterns. And increasingly, research shows correlations between tech overuse and risk of depression.
"iGen is the first generation to grow up with their smartphone for a whole adolescence. That has really had ripple effects across their behavior, their attitudes, and their mental health. They spend a lot more time online, texting, and on social media than [millennial] teens did 10 years before," said Twenge.
"If used in moderation, there aren't any negative effects. It's at three, four, five hours a day and beyond. It's only partially the phone and social media, it's also what it's crowding out. If you're spending so much time on that, maybe you're not exercising. Maybe you're not seeing your friends in person as much."
What the Tech Industry Can (and Should) Do
JANA Partners believes Apple and other device makers in particular are in a position as gatekeepers of these experiences to take a long-term approach. The letter recommended five initial steps Apple might take. Most important, it called for Apple to revamp its parental controls, which haven't seen a major update since their initial release in 2008.>
"People can choose not to use them, but giving parents better optional controls has benefits in both the short and long term," said Charles Penner, a Partner at JANA. "We've seen what can happen in the tech space when you prioritize short-term gain at the expense of long-term value and customer perception. As we said in our letter, technology is best when it's easiest to use, but that doesn't just mean how quickly you can get from point A to point B. It should also be easy in the sense of, how you feel about it a week later, and a year later, and five years later, and 10 years later? Do you feel like it's been a good tradeoff?"
The letter draws a connection between growing parental concerns and the bottom line. Penner said this is an area where parents are saying, "This is our responsibility, but we could use more help." On this point, Apple responded within a day after the letter was published with a commitment to roll out enhanced parental controls for iOS. In March, it launched a Families page intended to give moms and dads the information they need to lock down the iOS and macOS devices their kids are using.The Endless Scroll: How to Tell if You're a Tech Addict
The letter's other recommendations are a blueprint for how the entire tech industry could be more proactive. JANA recommends forming a committee of experts to study these issues, monitoring ongoing developments, and identifying what additional research needs to be done. From there, Apple can use its vast informational and financial resources to fund and contribute to independent research. For now, we've only scratched the surface of the research that needs to be done.
Finally, JANA proposes assigning an exec to monitor and report on these issues, as Apple does with environmental and supply chain issues. "A lot of tech companies are concerned with their carbon footprint, for example, so they make it a high priority, and they regularly update customers and shareholders on their efforts," said Penner. "Apple can do the same thing here and set an example for the rest of the industry."
What Facebook Has to Say
The Apple shareholder letter is one example of how the debate over Silicon Valley's responsibility has intensified dramatically in the the past year or two. Much of the conversation about how these products are affecting society has been focused on Facebook.
This story isn't as focused on Cambridge Analytica and data access, or political ads on social media. Nor is it about simply chastising tech companies because of how well their apps and devices do what they're designed to do: make it as easy as possible for us to use them. The trade-off between technological convenience and digital dependence is one we all make, but that relationship is changing both for better and for worse.
PCMag spoke to Antigone Davis, Facebook's Public Policy Director and Global Head of Safety, about where and how Facebook is taking responsibility for how people use its experiences.
She said Messenger Kids and features such as Facebook's Parents Portal are some of the first steps forward in figuring out what's appropriate and giving parents the voice and the tools to make those decisions. Davis also talked about Facebook adding a much-requested time limits feature to Messenger Kids with Sleep Mode, so parents can control how much time children spend with the app and automatically cut off access at a certain time.
"Facebook's or any technology company's opportunity at this moment in time [is to] give parents those tools. Let's give them the information. Let's find ways within the products themselves to help with that," said Davis. "But also, let's make sure they have those things outside of the products."
There are reasons to be skeptical, but one of Facebook's main arguments with Messenger Kids is that children are already on smartphones and tablets. The company cited studies showing that 93 percent of US 6- to 12-year-olds have device access and 66 percent own a device. Facebook also ran a study with the National PTA in which 81 percent of parents reported that their children started using social media between the ages of 8 and 13.
Along the same lines as what JANA proposed for Apple, Davis said Facebook worked with child development experts on Messenger Kids and will continue to make that kind of expertise available to parents. Facebook also pledged $1 million for additional research, which Davis said the company plans to add to, along with pulling from outside studies. She stressed that the research will be entirely independent.
"It'll be both a long-term and a short-term project," Davis explained. "So it may be something like a five-year study, but what we'll try to do, because you don't want to wait five years, is periodically start pulling information that we can build into guidelines for parents that may be useful in managing kids' experiences online."
Better Tech Habits for Everyone
Tech companies often talk about giving users more control through the lens of kids. A bigger question is how that philosophy could extend to all users. In the same way the Like button changed Facebook use, behavioral hooks like mentions, notifications, reaction emoji, and tags are all part of a feedback loop to keep you engaged.
Could a version of time limits also be applied to Facebook for everyone? Could tech companies introduce stopping cues—say, a notification like, "You've been on the app for two hours. Would you like to take a break?"
Facebook has begun to address these kinds of concerns publicly, in large part because of the myriad issues it has faced of late. In January, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was changing its News Feed to prioritize "meaningful interactions" over engagement. A few weeks later, he said the change had decreased time spent on Facebook by about 5 percent—but that was actually a good thing. Davis also pointed to changes such as the Snooze feature, which lets you mute a Friend temporarily.
"One specific change we've talked about is seeing more posts from family and friends, which are the kind of community interactions people tend to feel are more meaningful," said Davis. "That may mean we're going to see fewer people spending time endlessly scrolling through content and passively responding.">
Google introduced something similar recently, unveiling new Android controls as part of its digital wellbeing initiative. Starting with Android P, devices will include an app timer, a dashboard showing a breakdown of how much time you're spending in different apps, and a wind down feature reminding you to take device breaks.
When we asked whether Facebook sees an issue with tech addiction on social networks like its own or with other devices and digital experiences, Davis didn't answer yes or no; she said the conversation is not giving people room for nuance.
The Endless Scroll: How to Tell if You're a Tech Addict
The Endless Scroll: How to Tell if You're a Tech Addict
Source : http://uk.pcmag.com/netflix/94974/news/silicon-valley-reckons-with-responsibility-for-tech-addictio