Halfway to the door of State Street Brats, a group of young men gathered in a semicircle. Slouching, heads buried in their devices, the only thing moving was their thumbs, furiously swiping, never long enough to read a word.
For six minutes, no one spoke.
Facebook’s first Mission Statement: give people power to build community and bring the world closer together.
Without argument, social media has its purpose. Social media helps connect people passionate about everything from Husky dogs to Steampunk. Folks can sell lawnmowers, coffee cups, and horse hay. Brands have been made in a minute on YouTube. You can track down old friends, if you want to.
“Anything in extremes is bad.” It was one of my dad’s favorite idioms, thirty years before Mark Zuckerberg was born. I posit that COVID-19 will cause a fraction as much havoc as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.*
Chamath Palihapitiya was vice president of user growth before he left Facebook in 2011. He confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he felt tremendous guilt for his work on creating tools that are “ripping apart the social fabric.”
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
The devastation of distraction.
We had the Mattel Classic Football game in the seventies, with six buttons that controlled a red dot: up-down-forward. The simplest smartphone has a television, post office, and library.
Students at three universities were taught a curriculum. At exams, they were divided into groups. One was allowed to have their devices on their desks, turned off. A second group was required to stow them in their bag, turned off. A third was not allowed to have them on the premises. Scores consistently declined according to proximity of their phones.
Students with the sleeping distraction on the desk scored a full letter grade lower.
In another experiment, researchers found that people asked to perform complicated tasks retained less information and performed poorer, in the presence of smartphones, even if they were not their own devices.
Pings, ringtones, and detection of vibration make subjects’ blood pressure and heart rates rise, create distractions, and increase likelihood of errors.
When asked if they felt the presence of their devices was a distraction, the test subjects responded, nearly universally, that they were not.
Apple expects iPhone users to consult their electronic pacifiers eighty times per day. That’s four and a half times, per waking hour. Furthermore, studies have shown that thirty percent of young people wake in the night to check their phone.
In 2017 it was reported that a whopping 96% of UK residents ages 16-34 owned a smartphone, and the typical user touches their smartphone 2,617 times every day.
Michelle Powers was in with her Red Doberman, Ruby. Michelle is a fourth-grade teacher at a school where devices are not allowed during the school day. She shared the research of a colleague who added social-media feeds of her eighth-graders.
In one hour, during the school day, 28 students received in excess of six thousand social media feeds.
Pause to absorb.
Dr. Gloria Marks, Professor of Informatics at The University of California – Irvine, found it takes an average of 23 minutes and fifteen seconds to return to the original task, after a single interruption.
Some districts incentivize students who refrain, like a Labrador pup who sits-and-stays for a treat. With apps that track number of touches, students are rewarded with everything from Starbucks gift cards to extra-credit on tests.
My dad would have four words, “Because I said so.”
One article points out that smartphones are such powerful research tools, why not let students use them? School districts can save money by not having to provide laptops. “Data is memory without history,” the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick wrote. When we allow smartphones to commandeer our brains, we constrict our capacity for reasoning and recall and sacrifice our ability to turn information into knowledge. We get data, but lose meaning.
In 1892 pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James proclaimed, “The art of remembering, is the art of thinking.” It is not until we encode information into our organic memory that we can use it to weave the intricate associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical conceptual thinking.
No matter how much information surrounds us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.
The social effect.
Platforms that purport to keep people connected, may be accomplishing quite the opposite.
Social scientist Jean Twenge has studied generational differences for twenty-five years. Today’s youth is incredibly connected to the world around them, yet report feeling isolated and unhappy. From 2000 to 2015, Twenge found that young people became forty percent less likely to get together on a regular basis.
A group of researchers at University of Arizona asked, does obsessive use of social media lead to depression, or do those with depressive tendencies turn to social media? In an about-to-be-published paper, they found that the obsessive use of devices is an extremely accurate predictor of future depression and anxiety.
So Bill, what’s your point?
I shared an exchange with my friend Scott. A client was hoping her son’s new girlfriend might, “beat a little Christianity into him.” In the next phrase, she expressed her frustration with the “idiots at the mall.’’
Twenty-years the trial attorney, his response was instant, “Hick, we’re all full of contradictions.”
In high school, selling night crawlers at Ye Olde Tackle Box, faced with the mechanical cash register, I could add a half-dozen items and figure tax, in my head. Now, I have a calculator on my iPhone. I have four Facebook accounts and demonstrated The Google Effect a half-dozen times cut-and-pasting passages into this article.
It is best to rise from life, as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.
All things in moderation.
Watch the sun rise. Listen to a friend. Ditch the device.
This story was written in early February, pre-pandemic.