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Social Media: Let’s Not Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water



Caveat:

I am a privacy hawk specific to our online information and I want to state right upfront that Facebook, along with other social media platforms and search engines, has a huge challenge specific to ensuring the privacy of our information. I also understand, however, that we are not a social network’s customer, we are their inventory. I am not willfully blind to the fact that a free social media platform’s business model is to collect our information and sell it to third parties for personal, financial, and political gain. This is how they make their money to keep these platforms free, while also keeping their shareholders financially happy. This posting is not about the extremely important privacy issue as raised by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. I will save that for another posting. This is about some of the information contained in Victoria BC’s Mayor Helps’ posting on her blog on March 22nd, 2018. As the old adage goes, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Firstly and most importantly, what a person decides to do on social media is their choice. Given my work in the area of social media safety and digital literacy, my followers and the media have asked me what I think about Mayor Lisa Helps deleting her Facebook account and her reasons behind that decision. My answer: it’s her choice and who am I to criticize her choice? What I can speak to are some of the reasons why she is doing so and compare them to my experience. This is based upon her open blog post: https://lisahelpsvictoria.ca/2018/03/22/why-im-quitting-facebook/

Mayor Helps states, “Facebook has become a toxic, echo chamber where people who have anything positive to say are often in defense mode against negativity and anger.”

Given that Mayor helps is involved in politics, I don’t doubt that this has been her experience. Politics has always garnered such feedback, and there is no doubt that the disinhibition effect, combined with the anonymity that social media can offer, can definitely play an increased role in attracting haters and “trolls.”

I have been on Facebook for more than eight years, have over 24,000 followers, and have never experienced this “toxic echo chamber.” My experience is that it’s a place where people who have anything positive to say are often in defence mode against negativity and anger. In fact, our Facebook page is a place where tweens, teens, and adults come to learn and exchange ideas and thoughts specific to the digital world. It is also because of our Facebook page that we have now been involved in 167 successful interventions where teens, and even adults have connected with us due to self-harm or suicidal ideation because of things going on in their lives. Our Facebook page has become a positive digital outreach platform where a lot of support and guidance happens.

So, when Mayor Helps says, “And I’m quitting Facebook so I stop contributing in any way to this cycle of psychological violence where fear and anger get more air time than joy, where opinions become hardened in the absence of facts or dialogue and where division rather than much-needed connection is the norm”, I know I, for one, will still be on Facebook to contribute in a positive way to help others who are seeking knowledge specific to social media safety and digital literacy, or are seeking emotional, psychological, or physical help due to an online/offline crisis.

In her posting, Mayor Helps stated, “It’s not a question of us a humans being ‘weak’ or something being ‘wrong with us’. Social media is designed to suck us in, to keep us distracted. It’s called the attention economy. Social media companies are competing for scarce minutes turned hours of our time.”

I agree with Mayor Helps’ statement. In fact, Tanya Goodman, a tech app software designer states, “We must not forget that this is a billion dollar industry battling for children to carry around their phones in their pockets. This industry is using the most manipulative neuroscience-based tricks to get them hooked. Software designers call it making apps sticky, medical experts call it making them addictive” It was also nice to see that Mayor Helps referenced the Center For Human Technology http://humanetech.com. This organization is a group of tech insiders who are raising public awareness about this challenge and what we as consumers of social media can do to help minimize the attention economy.

Mayor Helps also states, “This is contributing to fragmenting our attention spans so that we no longer have the ability to focus individually or collectively on the big issues that desperately need our attention. This isn’t good for the state of our democracy in Victoria where what we need is to be able to talk with each other and listen to each other about the challenges we face as a community.”

When I read that I think what about the the teens in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who are using Facebook, and other social media platforms to focus collectively on the national issue of gun control in the United States? They are successfully using social media to amplify their voice so that adults and politicians can no longer silence or willfully ignore them. This is but one example of many of where Facebook is being used by individuals, groups, and whole communities in a positive way to deal with “big issues that desperately need our attention.”

In her blog Mayor Helps asserts, “according to Dr Paul Mohapel at Royal Roads University, citing a study from Sussex, device-driven multitasking can shrivel the prefrontal cortex specifically the anterior cingulate cortex. This is the part of the brain used in executive function, cognitive processes, emotional regulation and evaluative processes. Our brains are shrivelling in the place we need them most – to reason, to have empathy and most importantly to have the emotional intelligence to connect with others.” Helps references a link to a YouTube video of Dr. Mohapel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4I4Ma0R330

I was grateful that in my policing career I got to work with the Canadian Police Research Center and a number of M.D.’s, PhD’s, and scientists. I believe they enjoyed working with me, given my ability as an investigator to find things at a granular level, which I then turned over to the proper academics to give their expert opinion. One of the things that I learned is that published research is often misquoted or skewed. This is the study quoted by Dr. Mohapel: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0106698

If you read the entire study, the authors clearly admit several limitations to their research including, “….the cross-sectional nature of our study does not allow us to specify the direction of causality,” In other words, it is clear that their research does not differentiate if high concurrent media usage leads to changes in the brain structure, or whether those with less-dense grey matter are more attracted to media multitasking. As an epidemiologist once stated to me, “correlation does not imply causation.” So, for anyone to say that this study proves that device-driven multitasking can shrivel the prefrontal cortex, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex, is misrepresenting the contents of the above noted research. In fact, co-author of this study, Kep Lee Loh stated, “Although it is conceivable that individuals with small ACC are more susceptible to multitasking situations due to weaker ability in cognitive control or socio-emotional regulation, it is equal plausible that higher levels of exposure to multitasking situations leads to structural changes in the Acc. A longitudinal study is required to unambiguously determine the direction of causation.”

Another 2013 study quoted in the aforementioned YouTube video (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0053055) is being used by some to prove the thinning of the brain due to “device-addicted” users. If you listen closely to Dr. Mohapel, he does not say this addiction causes the thinning. In fact, if you read the whole study, here’s what the authors report out, “Our study used a cross-sectional design and the question arises whether these differences were a consequence or precondition of online gaming addiction.” The authors further stated, “This question could only be answered by investigating the temporal characteristics of experience-induced plasticity changes using a longitudinal design in the future.” As I expressed with the Sussex study, it is clear that this research does not differentiate if high concurrent media usage leads to changes in the brain structure, or if the less-dense grey matter is a result of a pre-exiting condition.

I also want to push back on one more issue that Dr. Mohapel stated in this YouTube video. I do, however, want to give them the benefit of the doubt, given that this appears to be a ten minute speed presentation in which he is attempting to share a lot of medical and scientific research that can sometimes blend into one another. In the clip, Dr. Mohapel stated, “last year the DSM V finally recognized internet disorder as a true psychological disorder.” I was concerned with this statement, given the information that I have received from psychiatrists and psychologists proved otherwise. I have subsequently confirmed that the DSM V has never identified internet disorder as an addiction; however, in certain circumstances it did identify unhealthy overuse of online behavior. One such psychological disorder is called “gaming disorder.” Semantics matter specific to this important issue given how laypersons will hear a message. It is also important for the reader to know that this disorder is now also being challenged by a large and very respected cohort of the medical and scientific community: https://akademiai.com/doi/10.1556/2006.7.2018.19

Similar to medical and scientific experts who study the relationship with tech and our emotional, psychological, and physical development, I am also concerned about what may be taking place with this now symbiotic relationship. I’m especially worried when it comes to our youth. Evidence-based research is important, but so is the actual findings of such research.

Traditionally, the cognitive sciences have concentrated on interruption behaviour that decreases efficiencies and wastes time. The cognitive sciences primarily investigate at the negative effects of multitasking while using information and communication technology (e.g. texting and driving) which, don’t get me wrong, is very important.

A new field of study known as Communications Studies and its information behaviour research is now looking at multitasking from a multi-channel or multi-media perspective where they are researching how a user of one medium or channel may also be engaging with other media at the same time. For me, this research is really exciting because this is exactly what people are doing, especially our youth, when it comes to social media. It’s all about context of usage. One of the experts in this field of research is Dr. Amanda Spink who states, “When we are engaged in performing a main task, communication devices facilitate a multitasking behaviour that has always been present but becomes more obvious when we use these devices; that is, we constantly engage in a low-level scanning or monitoring of the environment. This low-level monitoring alerts us to danger and may set in motion other important information behaviour phenomena that relate to human sensitivity and adaptation to both the social and physical environment in which we live.” This quote actually hints of the importance of multitasking to human survival. Mike Bloxham, director of testing and assessment at Ball State jokingly questions cognitive research specific to multitasking by saying, “But cognitive science tells us this multitasking isn’t possible. You have to give priority to one in order to absorb the messages.” What I would like to see is someone explain that to a fighter pilot whose ability to multitask can make the difference between life and death, and this is why I love this new school of research.

I also want to share two links with you that may help you to consider some of the benefits of social media use, given that too often we have a tendency to concentrate on the negative:

http://www.businessinsider.com/social-media-iphone-facebook-instagram-addiction-2018-3

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09w05zk

As a social media safety and digital literacy advocate and investigator, here’s what I have learned, both empirically and through peer-reviewed research when it comes to social media use and decreasing its contra-indications: IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE!

Let’s remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Digital Food for Thought

Darren Laur


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