Changing internet anxiety into internet awareness
Last fall, Mindwise organized a Science Communication Workshop for BSS ReMa and RUG PhD students. Participants in this workshop learned to communicate science to the general public by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating science to issues in society. A selection of these blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Hannah Meckling.
I looked at the screen, my eyes were blurry and my heart was racing. In my hands, I was holding a big chunky phone. Something was wrong. I made a mistake. I pushed the wrong button, hitting a weird sign that said Internet. It scared me that I did not know where this button would bring me and whether this would get me into trouble. So I hit -as fast as I could- the exit button, threw the phone in my bag and pretended this never happened.
Life in a digital world
This scene took place nearly 15 years ago, when I just turned 10 and got my first phone. While I know that my reaction to the Internet back then was exaggerated, I like thinking back to that memory, because it clearly shows that being on the Internet was not a part of my daily live. Nowadays, first thing in the morning, we open up our laptops, check our mails, drink a cup of coffee and tweet about mundane events in our life. Conversations which a few decades ago required a phone call or an actual physical meeting are now easily done via mail, Google hangout or Zoom. While this way of communicating is fast and accompanied with numerous benefits -especially during a pandemic- we rarely stop to think about the speed at which technology is progressing and the associated consequences of society and ourselves struggling to keep pace.
“We rarely stop to think about the speed at which technology is progressing and the associated consequences of society and ourselves struggling to keep pace.”
Take social media as an example. It is easy to use, provides the possibility to rapidly exchange information and is low in cost. However, it is no secret that while we are not paying actual money to use social media or the Internet, consumers pay with the data they provide. Revealing photos from the last vacation or parties that end up online may seem harmless, but once published they might later present obstacles for finding a job or getting a promotion (Claypoole, 2014). But it’s not only our privacy that suffers with the active usage of these apps. Excessive social media usage may also negatively affect our mental health. Different studies indicated that using multiple social media apps is associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g., Primack et al., 2016).
Negative consequences may also arise on a societal level, as social media has played a huge role in the distribution of fake news. Fake news contains information that is misleading, confusing and often based on biased facts, rumours or subjective political statements (Zhang & Ghorbani, 2020). During the corona pandemic for example, social media platforms, such as Facebook, actually took measures against the distribution of invalid information about the virus that was not based on scientific research (BBC News, 2020).
“This leads me again to the earlier point; we pay with our data not with our money.”
And as we are already talking about social media, let’s also talk about algorithms. And no, don’t worry I am not about to bombard you with formulas. But did you ever notice that YouTube is quite good at remembering what kind of videos you like? And did it by any chance ever happen to you that you got stuck watching ten videos, but you originally only wanted to see one? It has definitely happened to me. Although, no one really knows how the algorithm works, it is definitely designed to keep you on the website for as long as possible. However, the reason that YouTube likes your company is purely based on economical gains. The more videos you watch, the more advertisements they can display (e.g., Alfano et al., 2020). This leads me again to the earlier point; we pay with our data not with our money. With the data we provide, YouTube is able to design an algorithm, which is so efficient in recommending videos that some people might have trouble to stop watching them. Even scarier is the thought that watching one video containing conspiracy theories (which are often in opposition to mainstream consensus among scientists or historians) leads the YouTube algorithm to recommend and promote more conspiracy videos (Faddoul et al., 2020). The extent to which these algorithms are able to influence public opinion or political polarization is still researched today. Therefore, I think that it is important to be aware of these aspects and to actively reflect on the content one consumes.
Towards internet awareness
Fifteen years ago, my 10-year-old self threw her mobile into her back bag in fear of getting into trouble after hitting the Internet button. Honestly, my 25-year-old self still sometimes gets scared when thinking about the Internet. This does in no way mean that I am anti-technology or anti-progress. Quite the opposite actually. But we need more awareness for privacy issues and more transparency about the big powerful social media platforms that use our data. The terms of service need to be explained in a sufficiently clear way. So clear that anyone can understand how their data is being processed and used. This is especially important, as teenagers form a large proportion of those using social media. By doing so, we would have more knowledge to what exactly we signed up for and it might ultimately take away some of the fear that me as well as many other are feeling.
Alfano, M., Fard, A. E., Carter, J. A., Clutton, P., & Klein, C. (forthcoming). ‘Technologically Scaffolded Atypical Cognition: The Case of YouTube’s RecommenderSystem’.
Claypoole, T. F. (2014). Privacy and social media. Business Law Today, 1-4, 1–4.
Faddoul, M., Chaslot, G., & Farid, H. (2020). A longitudinal analysis of YouTube’s promotion of conspiracyvideos.Cornell University. Retrieved fromhttps://arxiv.org/abs/2003.03318
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., Barrett, E. L., Sidani, J. E., Colditz, J. B., & James, A. E. (2017). Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: a nationally-representative study among u.s. young adults. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.013
Zhang, X., & Ghorbani, A. A. (2020). An overview of online fake news: characterization, detection, and discussion. Information Processing and Management, 57(2). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ipm.2019.03.004