COLUMN: The ant-social side effects of social media

Has anyone else noticed that their phone is judging them?

As scientists work to develop artificial intelligence, and inanimate objects are taught to reason and learn like people, I suppose it makes sense that among the first human traits computers would pick up is to become judgmental know-it-alls.

A few weeks ago, my smartphone, for reasons I can’t explain, added a helpful new feature that pops up, unbidden, on my screen each Sunday and reports just how many hours I’ve spent each day staring at its tiny screen and how that number compares to the previous week.

It’s not overtly stated, but the implication is there – up is bad; down is good. And it’s not good.

My number has been climbing steadily, and the reason is no mystery. Lately, I’ve been getting sucked down the Facebook rabbit hole of animal rescue videos. I’ve been enraptured as an abandoned kitten is scooped up and taken on a bicycle tour of Europe; I’ve watched anxiously as ducklings are pulled, one by one, from a storm drain, their fretful mother pacing nearby; and the dogs – oh, man, don’t even get me started on the dogs.

The point is, Facebook has been programmed to figure out what types of content we like and then force feed us a steady diet of it, so we don’t have time to look up and realize three hours have passed.

So it was interesting timing that my phone’s unsolicited feedback began as researchers reported findings of a study that tracks a link between time spent on social media, or watching TV, and depression.

This particular study, which focused on young people between Grades 7 and 11, found that the online portrayal of “idealized” images of adolescence hurts teens’ self esteem. The more they watched, the worse they felt.

I would suggest that’s probably true no matter a person’s age.

Why, for example, am I not out rescuing animals if it’s so doggone important to me? I mean, adopting a shelter cat is fine, but it’s nowhere near as life-affirming as pulling a helpless sloth out of a river and returning him to his forest home.

Truthfully, most of us, regardless of age, only post about the best and most exciting parts of our lives – how #blessed we feel about whatever it is we’re trying to showcase to the world. And we know it.

But as a young person, perhaps it’s harder to differentiate the carefully curated image from harsh reality – to understand that it’s a rare teenager who will Instagram their latest zit.

I would go a step further, though, and suggest that another part of the problem is that while we’re staring at our screens, we’re not interacting directly with one another and that is something we are hard-wired to do. We’re social beings, so it’s a little ironic that social media actually pulls us away from one another.

A recent letter writer to PAN urged parents to look up from their phones and engage more in their children’s lives.

Their actions send kids a clear message, he noted. To expand on his point, it’s part of a parent’s job to set both an example and limits, to help their kids find life-screen balance and better mental health.

As for those of us in charge of monitoring our own screen time – I suppose that’s more of a judgment call.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.

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