Andres Oppenheimer

Facebook may have violated your privacy, but has it also damaged your health?

Facebook and other companies are facing criticism that they are deliberately trying to turn users into “tech addicts.”
Facebook and other companies are facing criticism that they are deliberately trying to turn users into “tech addicts.” Getty Images

Facebook is in crisis following allegations that the company allowed a data-analysis firm linked to the Trump campaign to get private information on 50 million Americans before the 2016 elections. But this may be just the beginning of a wider public backlash against Facebook and many other big tech firms.

In coming months, you will probably hear growing public complaints about what Facebook and other social media and streaming companies could be doing to your health, aside from criticism of their violations of people’s privacy rights and their failure to stop Russian disinformation campaigns.

Facebook’s stock fell more than 10 percent in recent days after the company admitted that Cambridge Analytica used private information from Facebook users to help Donald Trump win the presidential election. More than a half dozen congressional committees, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the European Union are looking into the matter.

Last year, under intense public criticism, Facebook conceded that up to 126 million Americans may have seen posts by a Russian troll farm that used bogus Facebook identities to exacerbate political tensions and spread pro-Trump propaganda.

Now, on top of all of that, we are likely to see more of an uproar over the alleged efforts of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix and other big technology firms to turn us into “tech addicts.”

Former employees of Silicon Valley tech firms have launched a campaign, titled “The Truth about Tech,” to educate people about the dangers of “tech addiction.” They cite studies asserting that constant connectivity to smart phones and tablets may cause depression, attention deficit disorder and other psychological problems in many people, especially youngsters.

The $57 million campaign — its founders say they have $7 million in cash and $50 million in donated media advertising time — will be aimed mostly at students in 55,000 U.S. public schools and their parents. It also will lobby for legislation to commission research on technology’s impact on children.

What makes this campaign different is that its founders are accusing Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies of intentionally creating applications aimed at making us tech addicts. Tech addiction is not an unwanted by-product of technology, but a deliberate result of what these companies do, they say.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the campaign, told me in a recent interview that the stock value of social media and streaming companies does not depend on their number of followers, but on their users’ “engagement time.”

In other words, investors are mostly interested in how much time we spend on a social media or streaming platform. That’s why computer engineers at big tech companies are paid to find ways to keep our eyeballs constantly fixed on their platforms, Harris says.

Tech companies have borrowed many ideas from gambling, he says. For instance, much like when we play with slot machines, our smart phones are designed to make us scroll down our emails or pull down constantly to refresh our Twitter messages.

“Every time you check your phone, you’re playing a slot machine to see what you got,” Harris told me. “It’s a variable reward, because sometimes you have new tweets or sometimes you have new messages, and sometimes you don’t. And that makes it intrinsically addictive.”

Netflix and other streaming platforms use similar techniques to keep us hooked, he says. Whereas in the past Netflix asked you to press a “yes” button if you wanted to watch the next episode of a TV series, now it automatically starts the next episode unless you take an active step to stop it.

As a result, many people are sleeping fewer hours — which is bad for their health — because they watch TV series late into the night, he says.

Harris says he’s not advocating that people stop using social media. Instead, he suggests taking steps such as turning off notification applications designed to keep us constantly hooked to our smartphones.

As a semi-tech addict who spends considerable time on Twitter and Facebook, I welcome the growing public demand to hold tech companies accountable for privacy violations, fake news distribution and tech addiction. Technology is great, and makes our lives more enjoyable, but we must control it, rather than letting it control us.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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