The Technology 202: New study finds social media junkies make riskier decisions

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A new study on social media use coming out today found that people who spent excessive time on Facebook also made riskier decisions — performing as poorly in a famous psychological test as people dependent on substances such as cocaine or heroin. 

Researchers at Michigan State University and Monash University in Australia  gave 71 people the the Iowa Gambling Task, which psychologists say identifies the differences in decision-making among healthy people and substance abusers.

When playing the computer simulation of a card game, people who reported they overindulged in Facebook made big gambles at a higher rate — even when they saw that taking risks in the game always came with big punishments. They played the game the exact way drug addicts typically do, while people who reported less time on social media made better decisions.

This camp also reported feeling similar symptoms of dependence on social media similar to those who suffer from substance abuse — including feeling overly emotionally connected to the platforms, or letting them disrupt focus on work or other daily tasks.  “They’re constantly thinking about these platforms when they’re not using them,” said the study’s lead author, Dar Meshi. “They’re losing sleep because they’re on social media.”

Tech addiction is an issue on Congress’s radar — and is quickly becoming a point of contention between tech companies and lawmakers who worry about the impact of pervasive platforms on citizens’ health. Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce bills addressing technology addiction, including one that would allocate more public funding into research on the impacts of technology on children’s psychology. 

“The widespread practice of designing technology products to be habit-forming, or to otherwise undermine user consent or autonomy, is a major concern,” Senator Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me in an email. “I’m in the process of drafting legislation that would address this phenomenon.”

Meshi said his findings underscore the need for more research into dependence on technology. Scientists still know very little about technology addiction. The National Institutes of Health launched a major study into how screen-time impacts children’s brain development, as CBS News recently reported.  But overall, researchers have largely focused on dependence on video games, and to date, research into social media dependence is just beginning. 

Lawmakers and consumer advocates also want more data. Facebook and companies have built their platforms with habit-forming features aimed at giving users psychological rewards that keep them coming back for more. Their efforts have been effective — and lucrative. Though Facebook rarely gives exact figures on time people spend on its site, in 2016 it said the average person spends about 50 minutes per day across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.

Lawmakers are especially focused on the impact of these sites and heavy screen time on children’s health. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) tells me he is planning to reintroduce a version of the Children and Media Research Advance (CAMRA) Act this Congress, which would allocate millions in funding for NIH to research the impact of technology such as mobile devices and video games on children and adolescents.

“Parents and policymakers alike are in the dark on pressing questions regarding how the technology children use every day is affecting their brains and bodies,” Markey told me in an email. “We need to get to the bottom of the cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional repercussions of young people’s tech use and media consumption.”

The bill gained sponsors on both sides of the aisle and in the House, but did not move forward in the last Congress. Markey’s staffers tell me they’re collecting co-sponsors to reintroduce the bill. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) was a House co-sponsor of the legislation, but he did not run for reelection in 2018 because he is pursuing a 2020 presidential bid.

Legislators have been trying to exert more political pressure on tech addiction since around the time Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in his dorm room — years before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. In 2005, former senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) first introduced the CAMRA Act to study the impact of electronic devices on children. But these efforts were not successful.

A perfect storm is brewing in 2019 that could result in a different outcome. Policymakers are planning to get tough on technology addiction as Wall Street investors and even prominent Silicon Valley technologists are using their influence to bring technology addiction to the public’s attention.

The companies have introduced some new product features intended to get ahead of the backlash, such as timers that tell people how much time they’ve spent on their phone each week. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for lawmakers, who are still promising to get tougher. 

Warner told me the technology companies have too often used behavioral psychology to the detriment of consumers.

“Rather than using technology to empower consumers, too often we’ve seen large technology companies — particularly in the social media space — utilize technology, along with tricks gleaned from behavioral psychology, to disempower users — undermining their ability to make informed, deliberate choices in their use of tech products.”

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Apple has hired Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee turned vocal critic of the social network, to serve as a product manager on the company’s privacy team, the Financial Times’s Hannah Kuchler and Tim Bradshaw reported. Parakilas will be tasked with collaborating with other Apple teams to uphold users’ privacy in new products. His recruitment comes as Apple has increasingly sought to emphasize its commitment to privacy and distinguish itself from competitors including Facebook, Google and Amazon as tech giants face mounting scrutiny over their data collection practices. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Sandy Parakilas monitored software developers’ privacy and policy compliance at Facebook for a year and a half before he left the social network in October 2012,” Kuchler and Bradshaw wrote. “At the time, he warned senior executives of the potentially damaging consequences of the company’s data-sharing policies, but felt his concerns were played down.” Parakilas has also advocated for encrypted messaging and increased protection of user data, according to the Financial Times.

NIBBLES: As wireless carriers prepare for the rollout of 5G service, the very definition of what 5G actually is has become a point of contention between telecommunications companies, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Drew FitzGerald. Verizon and T-Mobile scolded AT&T after the latter company added the label “5GE” on the Android phones of some of its customers — with the E in “5GE” meaning “evolution.” Yet such phones can only connect to 4G service.

“Verizon won’t take an old phone and just change the 4 in the status bar to a 5,” Kyle Malady, Verizon’s chief technology officer, wrote in an open letter that was published online and in newspapers as full-page ads, the Journal reported. T-Mobile has also teased AT&T over the move in a short video on Twitter.

“It’s hardly the first time telecom marketers have used engineering patter to muddy the waters,” FitzGerald reported. “T-Mobile caught flak in 2010 for putting 4G labels atop phone screens connected to its upgraded HSPA network, which critics argued was only enhanced 3G.”

BYTES: The recent interruptions of flights at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports following drone sightings illustrate how airports and public authorities have yet to come up with solutions to prevent such threats, CNBC’s Lora Kolodny reported. “Interdictions are allowed at military bases in the United States and some fixed sites that are owned by federal agencies,” according to CNBC. “But authority hasn’t been determined at every commercial airport.”

Joerg Lamprecht, chief executive of Dedrone, a San Francisco-based start-up that works to detect malicious drones, said air travel professionals are still working to determine who is responsible for what when it comes to drones. “Airports have a lot of red tape,” Lamprecht told Kolodny. “This is a new issue. Who is in charge, who controls the airspace, who is the one that should be providing drone detection? Who has the authority to manage this and to intervene — is it federal police, local police, someone who owns the airspace?”

PRIVATE CLOUD

— Virtual reality used to be the next big thing in tech, but the hype has largely subsided at the CES show in Las Vegas this year, the Associated Press’s Mae Anderson reported. Although major tech companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft have invested hefty amounts of money in VR, the technology has not met much success. “These days, VR is mostly a niche product for gaming and business training, held back by expensive, clunky headsets, a paucity of interesting software and other technological shortcomings,” the AP reported.

— More technology news from the private sector:

Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. have yet to receive feedback from the U.S. securities regulator on their confidential submissions for initial public offerings, people familiar with the matter said.

Bloomberg News

PUBLIC CLOUD

— An adviser to the European Union’s Court of Justice largely backed Google in its legal battle against France’s privacy regulator over a global “right to be forgotten,” the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Schechner reported. The adviser said Google and other search engines should not be forced to apply this principle outside the EU. “Maciej Szpunar, an advocate general for the court, argued in Thursday’s nonbinding opinion that if the EU ordered removal of content from websites accessed outside the EU, there was a danger that other jurisdictions would use their laws to block information from being accessible within the EU,” according to the Journal.

The court, which often follows the advice of the advocate general, usually rules within two to four months, Reuters reported. “The fundamental right to be forgotten must be balanced against other fundamental rights, such as the right to data protection and the right to privacy, as well as the legitimate public interest in accessing the information sought,” Szpunar said, according to Reuters.

— More technology news from the public sector:

The Chinese telecommunications giant has been unable to send home certain technologies from research-and-development unit Futurewei, after the Commerce Department signaled it wouldn’t renew a Futurewei export license.

Wall Street Journal

#TRENDING

— Researchers at Princeton University and New York University found that Americans older that 65 are more likely to share fake news on Facebook, the Verge’s Casey Newton reported. “Older users shared more fake news than younger ones regardless of education, sex, race, income, or how many links they shared,” Newton wrote. “In fact, age predicted their behavior better than any other characteristic — including party affiliation.”

The study analyzed user behavior in the months that preceded and followed the past U.S. presidential election and found that sharing false articles was relatively rare overall. “Users who identified as conservative were more likely than users who identified as liberal to share fake news: 18 percent of Republicans shared links to fake news sites, compared to less than 4 percent of Democrats,” the Verge reported. “The researchers attributed this finding largely to studies showing that in 2016, fake news overwhelmingly served to promote Trump’s candidacy.”

— More tech news generating buzz around the Web: 

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, are divorcing after 25 years of marriage, during which Mr. Bezos amassed a personal fortune while building the world’s most valuable company.

The Wall Street Journal

@MENTIONS

— Samantha Segall, who was vice president of government affairs at Leidos, joined the identity management company CLEAR as senior director of government relations, according to a news release from the company.

— Kyle Laughlin, who was a senior vice president at Disney, joined Amazon to lead the company’s Alexa Gadgets division, TechCrunch reported.

404 ERROR

— News about tech incidents and blunders:

BURN RATE

— Today in funding news:

CHECK-INS

Today

Coming soon

  • The Brookings Institution hosts a discussion titled “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on Jan. 14.

WIRED IN

Just a few weird tech products we saw at CES 2019:

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Cable news had some thoughts on Trump’s border wall speech:


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