Humane Tech: How tech affects our brains
Humane Tech: How tech affects our brains
This week, we’re looking at the dark side of technology.
Time Out to Tech Detox?
This week, we’re wrapping up part two of our two-part series on the relationship between technology and mental health. In this issue, we’re looking at the dark side of tech’s impact on our understanding and experience of the world. We’re asking how platforms tap into parts of our brain that bring down our mental health, light up dopamine, and lead to addictive patterns of behavior. More specifically, we’ll examine evidence suggesting that technology is negatively impacting mental health, social connection and self-image, especially among teens.
We’re also taking a look at Viacom’s successful digital and cultural transformation, and examining the threat that Amazon and other online retailers pose to brands’ control over their brand images. Finally, we’re applying epistemology to business by considering four alternate ways to improve how we think and learn.
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NYC Media Lab
While technology has certainly made life more convenient and made mental health services more accessible, it also has some real downsides. This week, we’re wrapping up our two-part series on the link between mental health and technology by looking at the risks that technology may pose to mental health.
BEYOND TEENAGE MELANCHOLIA
According to a February 2020 article in Nature, social media is suspected to have played a role in the sudden increase in the rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm seen in adolescents — and particularly girls — in both the U.S. and U.K. beginning around 2012–2013.
Source: Nature For more on the link between mental health and technology, watch Center for Human Technology (CHT) President and Cofounder Tristan Harris’ testimony to Congress in January 2020.
At about 1:30, Harris observes that mental health concerns and depressive symptoms among teenage girls in the U.S. have gone up an astounding 170% since 2010, and how platforms like Instagram are “hacking the self-image of children.”
Several reasons explain why teens are highly susceptible to harm by digital devices and social media use. First, they are heavy users of these technologies. Second, their relationships with their peers are likely to be shaped — and warped — by social media in particular. Third, their self-images are likely to be influenced, often in negative ways, by idealized images on social media. And finally, these platforms monetize users’ attention without factoring their questionable social, emotional costs.
Adults aren’t immune either. As Jia Tolento’s New Yorker piece cites, the rise of Instagram Face has proliferated similar apps such as FaceTune, which are used to request and visualize plastic surgery procedures.
HOOKED ON DISTRACTION, IMPATIENCE AND NARCISSISM More broadly, evidence suggests that technology is giving rise to a number of mental health issues in the general population:
- Distraction: Wreaking havoc on people’s attention spans (some studies suggest that average people’s attention spans have shrunk to an alarming 5–12 minutes)
- Memory: Rewiring our brains to remember where instead of what (cross university studies indicate that “instead of learning new facts gleaned online the brain tended to instead log where to find the information on the internet”)
- Impatience: Teaching people to expect instant gratification (a UMass Amherst study of 6.7 million users showed that viewers tended to abandon online videos if they took more than 2 seconds to load. A Nielsen Norman Group study found that most users only stayed on web pages long enough to read 20% of the text on them);
- Narcissism: Encouraging narcissism and self-centered behavior both online and in real life; and
- Addiction: Cognitive losses, as measured in gray and white matter reduction in the brain (a study of Chinese youths with Internet Addiction Disorder found reduced gray and white matter in key areas of the brain associated with cognitive control and goal-directed behavior). This report maps how platforms features (such as “likes” and “retweets”) trigger reward stimuli, and rewire our brains to crave these dopamine boosts.
In addition to these problems, social media and technology can also lead to deficits in social skills, make users feel isolated from others, and weaken communities’ social fabrics in terms as measured in terms of in-person interactions between individuals. WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY THROUGH POLICY & LAW? Big tech companies’ critics are cognizant of social media and technology products’ risks to mental health and users’ quality of life. With this in mind, some lawmakers are looking to legislative action to compel tech companies, and social media companies in particular, to make their products less addictive.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)’s Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART Act) would “prohibit social media companies from using practices that exploit human psychology to substantially impede freedom of choice.” It would also require Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to regularly notify users of the lengths of time they’ve spent on the platforms.
Sen. Hawley explains, “Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away.” THE BALANCED VIEW: IT’S NOT ALL BAD Writing in the February 2020 issue of Nature, Ksana Health co-founder Nick Allen argues that there’s a place for technology in the mental health realm. He says, “Because mobile devices are ever-present in people’s lives, they offer an opportunity to provide interventions that are timely, personalized and scalable.”
Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that mental health services — which currently rely on a century-old model whereby they’re available at times chosen by the mental health practitioner, rather than based on the time(s) of patients’ greatest needs — need a tech-enabled facelift, as discussed last issue.
How Viacom Sparked its Digital and Cultural Transformation Viacom’s transformation has been enabled by pulling multiple levers of the organizational change method. This has allowed employees to communicate and work together across silos, better understand (and therefore work toward) the company’s strategy, and improve internal communications around the company’s strategy, values, and culture. 8 min read Is Your Brand Getting Lost in the Online Shuffle? Thanks to Amazon and other e-commerce platforms, brands are increasingly losing control over their brand messaging. On the online marketplace, the consumer experience is often disconnected from brands’ messaging; this means that product marketers are at the mercy of online commerce platforms’ watered-down customer experiences, which dilute their visual equity and overall brand proposition. 6 min read Four different ways of knowing
In times of disruption and rapid change — much like now — effective leaders will avail themselves of multiple paths toward wisdom. The following four ways of thinking are useful ways to achieve that end:
- Systems thinking: attempts to understand pieces of a system by examining the whole and the relationships and feedback looks that shape it
- Exploration of negative space: broadens one’s view to include more variables
- Observation: spending some simply watching customers is a way to understand them on a different, and deeper, level
- Changing the physical environment: familiar surroundings encourage conventional thinking — therefore, to stimulate original insights, it can pay off to disrupt those patterns.
7 min read This Week in Business History
March 6, 1899: Felix Hoffman, a chemist at the Bayer company in Dusseldorf, patents Aspirin
Hoffman had initially prepared the formulation in 1893 with the hope of relieving his father’s arthritis. Today, Bayer continues to hold the registered trademark for “Aspirin” in more than 80 countries.
Prior to Hoffman, Alsatian chemist Charles Frederick van Gerhardt had created — and abandoned — the first acetylsalicylic acid in 1853. The “a” in the name is from “acetyl,” the “spir” is from Spiraea (a plant used in the compound), and the “in” is a common suffix for medications.
In 1921, Judge Learned Hand declares aspirin (by then the world’s most prescribed drug) a generic name. Thanks to this decision, Aspirin with a capital “A” became “aspirin” with a lowercase “a.” Today, the worldwide demand for aspirin remains huge, with about 40,000 metric tons of aspirin produced annually worldwide.