Ledger of Harms

Alpha Version Updated October 17, 2019

The companies that created social media and consumer-facing mobile tech have benefited our lives enormously. But even with the best intentions, these companies are under pressure from shareholders to prioritize product usage and growth, creating a race for attention that has unleashed invisible harms in society.

This Ledger collects those negative impacts of social media and mobile tech that do not show up on the balance sheets of companies, but on the balance sheet of society.

We evaluate the information we receive before we publish it here, including a methodological review of all the statistical studies we include. Not everything passes our review process, which is focused on methodology. The data below comes from peer-reviewed academic studies, as well as non-peer reviewed studies; academic conference proceedings; industry sources; and books and journalism from widely trusted public outlets.

This is a work in progress. We hope it will guide future research and coverage of these issues, and we welcome your feedback on how to improve it.

The Ledger of Harms is prepared by the Center for Humane Technology in partnership with Omidyar Network, the J.W. Couch Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Common Sense.

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Attention

Loss of ability to focus without distraction

Introduction

Attention and cognition are the foundation on which all our capacities depend — our ability to think, to concentrate, to solve problems, and be present with each other. Technology's constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions, which have been designed to keep us more engaged with tech products, are taking a major toll on these critical functions.

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Attention

Evidence

72%

of teens and 48% of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts, social-networking messages, and other notifications

In a study of 15 mobile device users, half of notifications were viewed by users within a few minutes of their arrival, and email + mobile messenger apps interrupted users in almost 50% of cases

The presence of a smartphone, even when off, can reduce cognitive capacity by taxing the attentional resources that reside at the core of both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence

A meta-analysis of papers found a negative correlation between media multitasking and memory. This finding is notable because most social media and apps are caught in a race for our attention, increasing our level of multitasking. (NEW)

Almost 90%

of 290 undergraduates reported feeling "phantom vibrations," which were experienced an average of once every two weeks

Commercial vehicle drivers who text message while driving are 23.2x more likely to be involved in a "safety-critical event"

44%

of teens agree at least “somewhat” that using social media often distracts them from people they're with in person, and 34% agree either strongly or somewhat that using social media takes away from time they could be spending with people face-to-face

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Mental Health

Loneliness, depression, stress, loss of sleep, and even increased risk of suicide

Introduction

Although social media can help people find support when they’re lonely or isolated, it also constructs a distorted social reality that challenges our mental wellbeing. Some evidence shows that when people use social media a lot, they’re more likely to be isolated, stressed, and depressed. Photo-sharing products emphasize the highlight reels of our friend’s lives, not their inner challenges and insecurities, and it’s never been easier to see 24/7 evidence of our friends having fun without us.

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Mental Health

Evidence

When people stopped using Facebook for a month as part of a controlled experiment, they showed an increase in well-being along with a decrease in political polarization. (NEW)

A systematic review and meta-analysis (of 20 studies) showed strong, consistent evidence of an association between bedtime access to or use of devices and reduced sleep quantity and quality, as well as increased daytime sleepiness

In controlled experiments, people who were instructed to use Facebook passively (i.e., scrolling without commenting or posting) for just ten minutes felt 9% worse at the end of the day, because they felt more envious of others. This illustrates how vulnerable we are to social comparison. (NEW)

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Relationships

Less empathy, more confusion and misinterpretation

Introduction

Technology has created amazing tools for long-distance correspondence. But conversations that are mediated and interrupted by technology create less emotional connection and carry higher risk of misinterpretation. Since tech companies get better engagement metrics for online conversations than offline conversations, they are incentivized to pull people towards digital conversation — and what if that replaces in-person connections?

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Relationships

Evidence

When engaging in debate, people are more likely to understand opposing viewpoints when they use their human voices. Unfortunately, many social media platforms are currently designed to focus on text, reducing human connection during arguments. (NEW)

Even the mere presence of smartphone can disrupt the connection between two people, having negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality

People overestimate their ability to correctly interpret sarcasm, humor, or sincerity over text communication, and this means people tend to believe they can communicate over e-mail more effectively than they actually can

People who compulsively use dating apps are found to have a high rate of loneliness and preference for online social interaction over in person interaction. This compulsive use leads to increases in their social sadness, and loneliness, setting up a downward spiral from which it is difficult to escape. (NEW) (DIRECTIONAL)

In a survey of web-savvy users, many reported that the Facebook news feed was confusing or violated their expectations, sometimes in ways that harmed their relationships (as for example when a user doesn't see a post from a close friend who expected them to see it), and indicated frustration at how Facebook fails to inform them of how its feed surfaces information

67%

of a 723-person sample of young Finnish Facebook users between ages 15 and 18 have been exposed to hate material — and exposure to online hate material is associated with poor attachment to family, lower happiness levels, physical offline victimization, and high online activity. Although this effect is correlative, it is part of a growing body of research that connects real-world issues, problems, and consequences with things that happen on online platforms.

Digital communications miss out on advantages of in-person conversation, including body language, voice, tone, and silences

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Democracy

Propaganda, lies, an unreliable and noisy space to talk

Introduction

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have built a remarkable new public square. Yet these platforms can be confusing at the very times when people most need solid information, because tech platforms don't have a clear business reason to evaluate truth. Platforms can be irresponsible about how their policies or product changes affect entire nations, especially when they don't have any employees or loved ones in those nations. And platforms rarely take responsibility for protecting users against trolls and malicious agents, because taking responsibility is expensive and complicated — even if the platform's product design encourages bad behavior.

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Democracy

Evidence

69%

of participants in a study on false news formed “rich and detailed false memories” that supported fabricated news they were shown. Participants were also 88% less likely to identify the story as false when it aligned with their beliefs. This shows how powerful false news can be when paired with targeted distribution via social media. (NEW)

Search results can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, with virtually no one aware they are being manipulated

In a study measuring the speed of false news vs. true news, false news spread six times faster. This is because falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth (even when controlling for the account age, activity level, and number of followers and followees of the original tweeter, and for whether the original tweeter was a verified user). In particular, false political news reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information. (NEW)

In a 2019 review of over two million Youtube recommendations, the algorithm consistently recommended more extreme, fringe videos to people who started out looking at slightly political videos. The same researchers reviewed 79 million comments across videos and found that this “radicalization pipeline” does indeed consistently move people to increasingly extreme comment communities. (NEW)

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Children

Children face new challenges learning and socializing

Introduction

Kids' cognitive challenges with learning, as well as social challenges such as bullying and body image issues, may be exacerbated by the tech they use. Parents can help by taking an active role in talking to their kids about tech, but parents are often struggling to understand and manage similar tech problems themselves.

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Children

Evidence

US teens spend an average of more than 7 hours per day on screen media for entertainment, and tweens spend nearly 5 hours and that doesn't include time spent using screens for school and homework. More than twice as many young people watch videos every day than in 2015, and the average time spent watching has nearly doubled. Tweens said they enjoy watching online videos more than any other screen media activity now. In 2015, it was fifth in enjoyment (NEW).

Children who are cyberbullied are 3x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation than non-bullied children, while those who experience "traditional" bullying are 2x more likely to engage in suicidal ideation.

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Do Unto Others

Many people who work for tech companies — and even the CEOs — limit tech usage in their own homes

Introduction

Many tech leaders don’t allow their own children to use the products they build — which implies they’re keenly aware that the products from which they make so much money from pose risks, especially for young users.

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Do Unto Others

Evidence

Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of user growth at Facebook, has said that: “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that sh%t. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that sh%t... The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Steve Jobs, who was CEO of Apple for many years, told reporters that his kids don’t use iPads and that “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Sean Parker, who was the founding president of Facebook, has publicly called himself "something of a conscientious objector" on social media and said, “God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains.”

Many modern Silicon Valley parents strongly restrict technology use at home, and some of the area’s top schools minimize tech in the classroom. In the words of one 44-year-old parent who used to work at Google, "We know at some point they will need to get their own phones, but we are prolonging it as long as possible."

“We’ve unleashed a beast, but there’s a lot of unintended consequences,” says Tony Fadell, inventor of the iPod and co-inventor of the iPhone. “I don’t think we have the tools we need to understand what we do every day… we have zero data about our habits on our devices.”

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Have a study, article, or correction to contribute?

The goal of the Ledger of Harms is to list compelling studies and articles that show clear effects, documented by relatively unbiased researchers and writers. If there's a key study or article missing, or if you see methodological problems with anything listed here, please let us know via the link below. We will update this page if the new information passes our review process.

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