TREND WATCH: What’s Happening? Big Tech, once a media darling, has transformed into a villain: Firms like Facebook and Google have been criticized for everything from enabling fake news to improperly exploiting their market clout. Now, a new form of “tech-lash” is growing against Silicon Valley companies accused of making their products addictive, with harmful consequences for happiness, sociability, productivity, and young people's mental health.
Our Take: Though it’s hard to prove that soaring screen time and heightened digital attachment is causing mental health problems, the common-sense correlation has been enough to raise the alarm of concerned parents, consumer advocates, and even the very people who work for and profit from Silicon Valley’s tech giants. To the dismay of tech firms whose valuations depend up on keeping users ever-more engaged, limits and restrictions on device usage may be on the way.
Is Facebook the new Big Tobacco? Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff thinks so. He recently said that the social network is addictive like cigarettes and should be subject to similar regulation, making him the latest tech executive to raise alarm over technology’s effect on society. Those who ascribe to Benioff’s theory may be interested in a new product from San Francisco-based Yondr that is taking the world by storm: Yondr sells a small, lockable pouch that serves as a smartphone detox. (The pouches can only be unlocked with a Yondr-supplied gadget, leaving the user beholden to whoever has the gadget.)
Benioff’s comments, in fact, came just weeks after two major Apple shareholders penned an open letter asking the company to study the effects of overuse on mental health and to develop tools to make it easier for parents to limit time on mobile devices.
Once universally hailed for their success, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies are under fire, accused of hijacking people’s time and attention at the expense of their physical and mental health. Concerns about digital overexposure are increasingly focused on children, with some linking the ubiquity of mobile phones and social media with rising rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide among young people.
What does this all mean for the Facebooks, Apples, and Googles of the world? Let's find out.
THE BACKLASH AGAINST BIG TECH
Big Tech has faced a barrage of criticism over the past two years. Much of it revolves around the new responsibilities that social media companies have taken on as the information stewards of the digital age. Facebook and Twitter are taking heat for their role in spreading “fake news” and propaganda. They’re being grilled for facilitating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the violence against the Rohinyga people in Myanmar. These social media companies have evolved into trusted news sources for millions of Americans almost overnight—a transformation that has forced these firms to abandon their old “we’re not media companies, we’re tech companies” credo. (This existential struggle is captured nicely in a recent Wired article detailing Facebook’s tumultuous last two years.)
The size and influence of America’s tech giants has also been a source of contention. In June, Google was hit with a record $2.7 billion fine for abusing its market power. The company is also facing antitrust charges regarding its Android operating system. Facebook, meanwhile, is staring down a lawsuit from Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, which takes issue with the manner in which the company acquires its user data. All of this threatens to slow the earnings growth and deflate the valuations of Silicon Valley’s info-tech giants. (See: "The Next Big Thing: Danger Ahead for Google and Facebook?")
In recent months, however, the scrutiny has come to focus on their business practices. Salesforce’s Benioff joins a chorus of critics claiming that these companies have engaged in psychological manipulation and have deliberately built their products to be addictive. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, said in November that he felt “tremendous guilt” about helping to build the site and that it’s “ripping apart the social fabric.” In an interview with Axios, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker said, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
In Parker’s interview, he described Facebook’s driving principle from day one as determining how to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible” by providing occasional rewards at variable intervals, which produces a dopamine rush. This strategy echoes those described in an essay by Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, titled “The Slot Machine in Your Pocket.” In today’s media landscape, attention is the most important currency. Whether it’s through likes, push notifications, infinite scrolling, autoplay, or “Snapstreaks,” apps and gadgets encourage users to linger and return sooner.
A SOCIETY OF SCREENS
The anxiety surrounding children and technology has grown as screen time has hit staggering levels. According to 2015 Monitoring the Future data (the latest available), 12th graders spend an average of six hours a day with new media, a category that includes texting, surfing the Internet, gaming, and video chatting. For 8th graders, the total is five hours a day.
Another Common Sense Media study looking at children age 8 and under found that since 2011, the amount of time spent on mobile devices per day has grown tenfold, jumping from 5 to 48 minutes. Almost all kids age 8 and younger (95%) have access to a smartphone today (either their parents’ or their own), compared to less than half in 2011. And 42% of these kids have their own tablet today, up from less than 1% in 2011.
The last large-scale, publicly available study quantifying teen media use was released in 2015. This study found that “tweens” ages 8 to 12 spent an average of nearly six hours per day consuming media, with the heaviest 15% of users registering 10 hours of media usage per day. For teens ages 13 to 18, the average daily figure was nearly 9 hours—with the heaviest 26% of users registering 16 and a half hours of media usage per day. That’s virtually every waking minute.
Assuming these younger age brackets mirror the trend among adults, their media usage has undoubtedly continued climbing in recent years. According to Nielsen, the time adults spend online and on mobile devices nearly doubled in the past two years alone. Other individual data points for teens also show an upward trend. Since 2008, the share of 12th graders who visit a social networking site “almost every day” has risen from half to around 80%. Additionally, 12th graders in 2015 spent twice as much time online per week as 12th graders in 2006. And 78% of 12- to 18-year-olds check their phones hourly. Half say they feel addicted to their mobile devices.
This digital immersion holds true regardless of income and education. According to Monitoring the Future, teenagers from different socioeconomic backgrounds spend roughly the same amount of time online and on social media per day. If anything, there’s a “reverse digital divide” in which the less privileged spend increasingly more time online and with electronic devices than their more affluent peers. Yet this doesn’t necessarily reflect less parental monitoring: A 2016 Pew survey found that lower-income parents are more likely to talk to their kids regularly about how to treat others online and what kinds of content are appropriate to share and view.
THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF RISING SCREEN TIME
So why does this matter? What do critics believe all this time spent in front of screens is doing to children?
Many, most notably psychology professor Jean Twenge, have tied rising screen time to recent negative trends in young people’s mental health. Over the past decade, rates of depression and suicide—particularly among teenage girls—have soared. Between 2009 and 2015, according to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, 58% more girls reported depressive symptoms and 14% more suicide-related thoughts or actions. A growing share of teenagers worldwide report feeling lonely and that they struggle to make friends.
This struggle is evident on college campuses nationwide. Over the past decade, the number of college students reporting symptoms of anxiety has grown steadily; anxiety now outpaces depression (by a wide margin) as the top complaint of those who visit counseling centers.
As we’ve mentioned before (see: "The Next Big Thing: The Young and the Anxious"), possible reasons why Millennials are so anxious range from their sheltered upbringings to a tough job market. But screen time is also getting a closer look as a possible contributor: In a just-released study published in Emotion, Twenge and other researchers assert that the less time teenagers spend in front of screens, the happier they are. Meanwhile, tech is also being blamed for making us less happy, less social, and less imaginative.
It’s not just mental health that people are worried about. Critics are also charging that digital-induced “semi-attention” is sapping productivity growth. Experts largely agree that rising screen time hurts physical health by disrupting sleep, causing eye strain, and keeping us sedentary. Mobile devices are also a temptation to multitask (which is less efficient than single-tasking) and literally tire out the brain. One Harvard Medical School study found that students performed best on cognitive tests when their smartphones were in another room and worst when next to them, even when turned off. The implications for focus in daily life are enormous, giving the worried yet another reason to urge Americans to cut back.
THE VERDICT IS UNCLEAR—YET THE DAMAGE IS DONE
It’s difficult to prove definitively that screen time directly affects mental health. But in a climate where protectiveness toward children is high, proof doesn’t matter. Parents and the public have already drawn a conclusion: According to Common Sense Media, two-thirds of parents feel their teens spend too much time on their mobile devices, and 52% of teens themselves agree. Seemingly everyone—children and adults alike—has a story about these devices interrupting or distracting from quality time. Worries about digital burnout have been building for years, fueling interest in mindfulness and other “grounding” behaviors. And the news headlines read like a dystopian fiction novel: Screens have turned kids into “psychotic junkies,” made them “moody, crazy, and lazy,” and may have even “destroyed a generation.”
Now, the alarm is being raised by the very people who profited from these technologies—which speaks volumes about the seriousness of the issue. That Apple would receive a request to fund long-term research on smartphones from investors who normally only press for higher ROI is remarkable. It may reflect the perception that ignoring the health of young users poses a long-term problem for their business model. To be sure, Apple cares more about how many devices it sells than how long users spend with their devices. More threatened are social media companies like Facebook, whose very business model depends upon the amount of time users spend staring at a screen. (More eyeballs mean more ad dollars, and social media companies are, after all, ad sales companies.)
Consumer advocates won’t be satisfied simply with vague promises to “look into the problem,” either. They’re increasingly calling for Big Tech to foot the bill for devices, apps, and services that would protect users—or at the very least enable them to better protect themselves. The nonprofit Time Well Spent, which is composed of former tech insiders, is leading the push. Some popular suggestions include offering people a weekly report breaking down their total screen time, more control over notifications, or even a toned-down color palette.
Skeptics caution that correlation is not causation. Just because two trends happen simultaneously doesn’t prove that they are causally linked. The Danish Happiness Research Institute may have come closest to proving causality: This random selection study of frequent Facebook users forced half to quit using the platform for a week while the other half served as a test group. By the end of the study, the forced quitters felt 55% less stressed than the test group. But other studies that examine screen time and well-being are often inconclusive. Last year, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University suggested that heavy computer and smartphone use lower teenagers’ mood far less than skipping breakfast or not getting enough sleep. Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America, told The Washington Post that tech is “the culturally easy scapegoat right now…it’s new, it’s scary, it’s changed our lives, it’s changed our kids’ lives.”
But try telling this to parents whose kids are perpetually hunched over their screens. When calling for digital detox, many detractors highlight a particular irony: Tech leaders often keep their own children away from the very devices and software they create. They’re enrolling them in low-tech schools and banning devices at dinner. In The Guardian, psychologist Adam Alter noted, “They will get up on stage, some of them, and say things like: ‘This is the greatest product of all time,’ but then when you delve you see they don’t allow their kids access to that same product.”
Setting limits, the critics say, is only following their example. In time, the public may catch up with these Silicon Valley geniuses who are behaving as though the products they create can do more harm than good.