by Mike Critelli
Recently, the Social Media Victims Law Center filed lawsuits against Meta (Facebook and Instagram's parent), TikTok, and Snap. What does this have to do with the MakeUsWell Network?
In 2016, I joined the PowerMyLearning Board, a New York-based non-profit. Its mission is to empower teachers and families. The organization used to provide free laptops to low-income families. After the families received the laptops, learning workshops were offered. I attended one at a Bronx school.
After 2½ hours of training, on the many benefits of the new laptops with Internet on-ramps, the last hour was a real eye opener. The trainers focused the parents on all the bad things unsupervised use could bring to the kids.Social newsfeeds, video games, postings, and online forums, cyberbullying, pornography, violence, and self-harm/suicide themed URLs.
The recent lawsuits do not treat social media as neutral platforms. These lawsuits allege that the sites are most focused on increasing user engagement by whatever means works most effectively, even if the algorithms induce self-destructive behavior, fear and anxiety, violence toward others, or depression.
The claims in these lawsuits resemble the old maxim of local news editors: “if it bleeds, let it lead." This is magnified and multiplied by how social media sites achieve addictive engagement.
This addictive and destructive set of trends was inadvertently, but unmistakably, accelerated by the pandemic lockdowns ordered by government officials at the recommendation of public health authorities.
School children increased their online usage. Adults working either from their homes, or from satellite work sites also were in front of computer, phone, and tablet screens more than in the pre-Covid work environment.
This combination of more algorithms designed to achieve more addictive online engagement, the focus on negative news, comments, conflict, alienation from workplaces, and the significant increase in the time we all spend online is a lethal mix. By their natures, addictive products and services, unless understood and counteracted, will continue to take increasingly large parts of our population into a downward spiral.
Employers, faith-based institutions, educators, and public health officials need to know this and they need to take the same kind of pre-emptive action they would take if a community were being devastated by opioid, cocaine, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drug addiction. This is one of the nation’s silent crises that is wildly underestimated in its impact.
The tools the internet has given us over the last three decades have far outstripped our ability to manage them. It is equivalent to handling highly toxic and hazardous chemicals by people who do not realize the risks of what they are handling.
At the MakeUsWell Network, we are focused on how to diagnose the most prevalent online addictive pathologies in communities and how leaders must address them. You will hear more about our work in the coming weeks and months.