Pew survey shows optimism among experts for the future, but there's plenty of room for improvements.
Ashlyn Thomas was conflicted. As a junior at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, she wanted to be able to maintain the connections she had with friends through social media. But she was also a serious student and remembered the debates that her family carried on when she was being home-schooled: Are social media platforms good tools, or a waste of valuable time?
“I decided in earnest to close all social media accounts to focus on my academics, to see whether or not social media affected my studying habits and grades,” Thomas said. “As it happened, that semester was the most high scoring semester of my undergraduate career.”
She tested her theory further: “I went back to my social media use and saw a drastic decrease in scoring,” she related. But finally, in her last semester, she closed all the accounts again, and her grades shot up again. “I decided that my self-inflicted study was correct: social media impacts student productivity.”
The social media hiatus came to an end, but this past Lent, Thomas quit Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest, both for religious reasons and for self-improvement. “You can imagine, for a young woman who wants to be ‘in-the-know,’ it has been difficult this Lenten season,” she confessed. “I noticed, however, that I am more inclined to call a friend or write him. I have seen greater satisfaction in my personal life and also my professional career. I am more present, aware, and a much better listener. I’ve also found myself to be kinder and less self denigrating.”
And especially apt for Lent, giving up social media gave her an interior silence that is conducive for a good prayer life, she said in an interview. As her asceticism helped her hear the voice of God, it also improved her communication with people. “Real connection comes from real people, and real people fulfill our desire for friendship and relationship,” said Thomas, who works at the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “I would much rather call my mother and hear her voice than give her a shout out on Twitter.”
Whether it’s giving up social media for religious reasons or quitting Facebook in protest over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with life in the Digital Age. And there has been a constant stream of warnings from experts and commentators on the dangers of smartphones and social media addiction. For some observers, all the proof that’s needed is a look at teenagers or young adults, who seem to have lost all social skills as their eyes are fixed on their screens.
“It’s just a given that everybody has these devices and everybody’s just plugged into this world from morning until night, and it’s really destructive to your humanity,” said Dr. Gregory Bottaro, author of The Mindful Catholic. “We basically worship these little devices, and we need to sacrifice our idols.”
Bottaro has taken his young family on a two-month “digital sabbatical” in Italy, where they are staying with relatives but leaving their devices home. The psychologist is continuing to work—counseling patients through video conferencing—so he’s not unplugging totally, and indeed, acknowledges the potential for good in new technology—God gave man the ability to reason and come up with better solutions to life’s problems, he believes. But he wants to make sure his family does not become slaves to digital technology before his children grow up (the oldest is now four).
What scares Bottaro the most is the combination of data monitoring and artificial intelligence and algorithms by which businesses are trying to influence the behavior and even the thinking of internet users.
“The stimulation of the instant gratification, with pointing and clicking, the visual stimulation that’s occurring, and these are all playing into the way our brains are wired,” he said in an interview. “The scary part about this really has to do with media, metrics and advertising and understanding online behavior, that it’s all becoming automated. This is where artificial intelligence is going to start just exponentially making this a very dangerous and concerning situation. With monitoring the way people use the technology, there’s massive amount of data being recorded, and very powerful statistics are being derived from user data—at almost near-immediate processing speed—these companies are creating these different algorithms and basically reprogramming themselves to more accurately play into people’s behavior.”
Also alarming to some is the speed by which the internet, smart phones, social media, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence have all infiltrated our lives, to one degree or another. Our work, our education, our participation in commerce, our social life, and maybe even our spiritual lives have all been impacted, to say the least, and perhaps even radically changed.
Blog posts, TED talks, and long-form magazine articles have focused on the loss of privacy, the manipulation of consumer choices and election votes, the fear of hacking and digital sabotage, the increased ability for government surveillance, the isolation brought about by living a virtual life, the polarization of society, the increased fracturing of daily life with its constant distractions and the decreased ability to concentrate, and the danger of any combination of these leading people to emotional stress, nervous breakdowns, or even suicide.
And yet, in spite of the dangers, the benefits of the digital revolution are also well-documented: bringing people together from far-flung places, free or low-cost access to news and information, to name just a couple.
“Virtual reality has been shown to treat depression more effectively and quickly than medications or talk-only therapy. VR has been used to treat anxiety disorders, phobias, social anxiety and PTSD,” says Fred Davis, a futurist/consultant, in a new study by the Pew Research Center.
The question is: Can those benefits outweigh the negatives, and can we find ways to ameliorate or eliminate the harms so that individuals and society in general can reap the benefits more fully?
Pew recently asked technology experts, scholars and health specialists, “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?”
Over 1,100 experts responded. About 47 percent predicted that individuals’ well-being will be more helped than harmed by digital life in the next decade, while 32 percent say people’s well-being will be more harmed than helped. The remaining 21 percent predict there will not be much change in people’s well-being compared to now.
Some of those offering their comments took the long view of history. “Heraclitus put it eloquently over two millennia ago: ‘nothing new comes into our lives without a hidden curse,’” said Paul Saffo, a leading Silicon-Valley-based technological forecaster and consulting professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford University. “Five centuries ago, the advent of the printing press utterly atom-smashed the social, religious and ultimately the political order of Europe. It ushered in a half century of chaos and conflict. But it also opened the door to the Enlightenment and the rise of representative political orders.”
Saffo predicted that we are in for “a wild period of disorder, but beyond is a sunny upland.”
Rob Reich, professor of political science at Stanford University, is not so sanguine.
“The harms have begun to come into view just over the past few years, and the trend line is moving consistently in a negative direction,” Reich said in the Pew study. He is worried about “corporate and governmental power to surveil users,” AI, the technological displacement of labor, “and finally, the addictive technologies that have captured the attention and mindspace of the youngest generation. All in all, digital life is now threatening our psychological, economic and political well-being.”
A good deal of the Pew study was taken up with potential solutions, and there seems to be as much ingenuity and creative thinking in that area as there was in developing the whole digital universe in the first place. Sherry Turkle, for example, a professor at MIT and one of the world’s foremost researchers into human-computer interaction, suggested the following steps:
- Work with companies in terms of design: tools, she said, “should not be designed to engage people in the manner of slot machines.”
- Make software transparent.
- Work with companies to collaborate with consumer groups to end practices that are not in the best interests of the commons or of personal integrity.
- Revisit the question of who owns your information.
- Revisit the current practices that any kind of advertisement can be placed online.
- Far more regulation of political ads online.
- “An admission from online companies that they are not ‘just passive internet services.’ Find ways to work with them so that they are willing to accept that they can make a great deal of money even if they accept to be called what they are! This is the greatest business, political, and social and economic challenge of our time, simply learning to call what we have created what it really is and then regulate and manage it accordingly, bring it into the polity in the place it should really have.”
But many of the proposals, like Turkle’s, focus on what companies could be talked into doing, or on government regulations. In humanity’s best interest, it may ultimately be up to the individual user to reform and regulate his own internet behavior and train himself in self-awareness. As Dr. Bottaro said, “We have to be willing to sacrifice our devotion to these little devices to serve our good and to serve our humanity. And it could be to serve our God.”