Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

November 16th, 2020

Life was much better when an apple and a blackberry were just fruits!


Mobile phones and social media apps have brought us visually and virtually closer to far away people at a cost. We are far too often not present with the people in our midst.

The tradeoff initially seemed worth it, however, that reality is fading as the corporate intention of addicting us to the devices takes shape. We are losing ourselves and our social skills to an artificially intelligent driven world view.

I am now actively shunning the phone and other devices when around others to maintain present moment feelings and actions.

The discussion below highlights this dilemma.

Dr. M

 There is a new documentary on Netflix called the Social Dilemma. It is eye opening to say the least. We all are aware that the tech world is spying on us and using us as a conduit to massive profits for themselves selling our viewing desires and behavioral data. However, the big questions are at what level and how negative is it for us? The Social Dilemma aims to answer this question and appears to do so with blinding clarity. It is a slowly plodding movie, yet, the content is worth your hour and a half.

They use terms like digital pacifier and the "drug" that is social media. I have watched with dismay the effect of these devices and their applications on my patients, my children and their friends. It appears to be a massive net negative on social interaction and movement primarily. The second major problem is well laid out in the movie, a slow indoctrination of beliefs and behavior change driven by artificial intelligence with no means to any end other than encouraging more screen time, screen engagement and revenue. The end result is young boys and girls seeing the world through the lens of modern media machines. Overall, these systems are geared toward coopting our primitive needs for acceptance, tribal associations and pleasure.

In clinic a few days ago, I was speaking to a 12 year old young lady who is struggling with sleep and school. Her screen time usage is 9 hours per day with 4 hours a day being reserved for Tik Tok. To her mother's dismay, this young person sees nothing wrong with the time spent. In her mind, the sleep and school problems are unassociated.

This documentary does a great job of bringing on board the individuals who "would know" what social media was designed to do and where it went wrong. These same designers of the programs and the applications are now having a mea culpa moment that we must listen to. It, to me, seems that existential. To imagine a machine with artificial intelligence watching me for years, not missing a thing that I do online and then feeding me what it believes that I need, want or worse wants me to have for a separate purpose scares me, ALOT.

How about your teenager? They are trying to navigate the world of middle and high school with all of the myriad social pitfalls only to have to find a way to get cyber likes or feel socially less than if they don't. Do they change their behavior to please the internet masses, school chums or the AI program that is feeding them screen input? You can easily see how this can spiral out of control rapidly for the child who is not given parental guidance or is rebellious by nature. History has always taught us that the teenage years are incredibly difficult to navigate. Making it that much harder seems foolish.

Today's world of virtual school where your teenager is in their room all day online "learning" is a trap for these issues. Do they put the phone away or is it a constant distraction every 30 to 90 seconds from the other 30 bored students in their bedrooms. Spiral, spiral, spiral and fly away.

Meanwhile facebook is worth 527$ Billion, Instagram (owned by facebook) 100$ Billion, Snapchat 4.8$ Billion and Twitter 39$ Billion. The incentives to make a teenage health centric algorhythm are non existent. These companies are actually highly incentivized the other way.

According to the documentary, what do we have to show for all of the social media use? One word: suicide. They show a graphic that associates the beginning of youth engagement with social media in the early 2010's and a persistent increase in suicide nationwide. Now, let's be clear, this is association and not causation. However, there is a neurobehavioral link between social need, failure to achieve it, mood disorder and subsequent suicide. This issue can and likely is significantly amplified by these social media platforms for the vulnerable.

If a teenager is constantly amending his or her behavior to attract followers, likes and dopamine hits, what level of behavior modification, if negative, is risky? These are tougher questions to answer as each child's resilience and tolerance to the AI inputs are different. It leaves us as parents in an unenviable position. First of all, we need to be aware that X can be occurring and thus monitoring this activity. This is not fun nor welcomed by most parents whose lives are busy enough. Second, we have to choose a level of "ok". How do we do this? What are the parameters by which we choose X amount of time on this site is ok while Y is not?

Every generation of parents has had to grapple with and learn from the changing times and technologies. However, somehow this feels different. This is targeted and manipulated activity in real time all of the waking day. This is activity that leverages a computer's machine learning capabilities to hijack my child's impulses and desires. This is an unlevel playing field at every level.

The frustrating part for me is that I am not a helicopter parent and do not want to be. This leaves me in a dangerous place. Do I let the reality play out and pray that my education has sunk in enough to combat this assault on a child's mind? Do I change my behavior to be more involved and observant of this activity? At what level? Do I just say forget it all and remove the temptation knowing that in a few years my child will be 18 and trying to navigate this world without any guidance? These are a few of the many questions that swirl around in my mind.

I have settled on this answer. Avoidance is never going to work. Authoritative guidance is the only option. I will tell my child the guiding principles that we as parents believe in. We will expect you to follow them and be fair in your conduct or lose the privilege of social media.

1) Phone applications are off during school hours - this is a time for study and learning
2) No sexting ever
3) Keep your phone in the kitchen at night
4) We will follow your activity from time to time. DO not send anything that you would not want us to see
5) Always keep your personal and the families personal information completely private

Dr. M