Ledger of Harms

Beta Version Updated May 28, 2020

Under immense pressure to prioritize engagement and growth, technology platforms have created a race for human attention that’s unleashed invisible harms to society. Here are some of the costs that aren't showing up on their balance sheets.

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Making Sense of the World

Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news

Why It Matters

A broken information ecology undermines our ability to understand and act on complex global challenges from Climate Change to COVID 19.

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Making Sense of the World

Evidence

64%

of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools...our recommendation systems grow the problem”, noted an internal Facebook presentation in 2016. Yet repeated attempts to counteract this have been repeatedly ignored, diluted, or deliberately shut down by senior Facebook officers, according to a 2020 Wall Street Journal investigation. In 2018, Facebook managers told employees the company’s priorities were shifting “away from societal good to individual value.”

6X faster

Fake news spreads six times faster than true news. According to researchers, this is because fake news grabs our attention more than authentic information: fake news items usually have a higher emotional content and contain unexpected information which inevitably means that they will be shared and reposted more often.

Reading a fake news item even once increases the chances of a reader judging that it is true when they next encounter it, even when the news item has been labeled as suspect by fact-checkers or is counter to the reader’s own political standpoint. The damage done by fake news items in the past continues to reverberate today. Psychological mechanisms such as these, twinned with the speed at which fake news travels, highlight our vulnerability demonstrating how we can easily be manipulated by anyone planting fakes news or using bots to spread their own viewpoints.

45%

of tweets about corona virus are from bots spreading fake information, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University. An analysis of more than 200 million tweets created since January 2020 indicates more than 100 false narratives, including conspiracy theories that hospitals are full of mannequins. Researchers note that these posts appear to be aimed at sowing division within America, commenting “We do know that it looks like a propaganda machine”.

As the pandemic develops, there has been a significant increase in posting fake news and false information even among human users, due to the algorithms underlying social media platforms. Researchers note that people naturally repost messages on the basis of their popularity, rather than their accuracy. Fact-checking has been unable to keep pace. Such false information is particularly dangerous because, as noted above, it tends to be retained for a long time, irrespective of fact correction.

The primary driving force behind whether someone will share a piece of information is not its accuracy or even its content; the main reason we share a post is because it comes from a friend or a celebrity with whom we want to be associated. As humans, we’re often more concerned with status, popularity, and establishing a trusted “friends” circle, than with maintaining the truth. As a result, social media spaces will inevitably be spaces where the truth is easily downgraded.

2 minutes

of exposure to a conspiracy theory video reduces people’s pro-social attitudes (such as their willingness to help others), as well as reducing their belief in established scientific facts.

Anger is the emotion that travels fastest and farthest on social media, compared to all other emotions. As a result, those who post angry messages will inevitably have the greatest influence, and social media platforms will tend to be dominated by anger.

17%

Each word of moral outrage added to a tweet increases the rate of retweets by 17%. It takes very little effort to tip the emotional balance within social media spaces, catalyzing and accelerating further polarization.

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Attention and Cognition

Loss of crucial abilities including memory and focus

Why It Matters

Technology's constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions are taking a toll on our ability to think, to focus, to solve problems, and to be present with each other.

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Attention and Cognition

Evidence

75%

of screen content is viewed for less than 1 minute, according to a study that tracked computer multitasking across the course of 1 day . Results indicate that most people switched between different content every 19 seconds. Biological analysis demonstrated that participants experienced a neurological "high" whenever they switched — explaining why we feel driven to keep switching and underscoring how human biology makes us vulnerable to being manipulating by attention-extractive economies.

Draining attention

The mere presence of your smartphone, even when it is turned off and face down, drains your attention. An experimental study of several hundred adults showed that both working memory and the ability to solve new problems were drastically reduced when their phones were turned off but present on their desks, as opposed to being in another room. Ironically, participants who said they were highly dependent on their phones showed the greatest increase in memory and fluid intelligence scores when their phones were moved to the other room. Researchers noted that smartphones act as "high-priority stimuli," unconsciously draining significant attentional resources even when we consciously ignore them.

1 hour per day

is the amount of time most Americans spend dealing with distractions and then getting focused and back on track each day, which comes to a grand total of 5 full weeks in a year.

40 seconds

is the average time we can typically focus while working on computers, before our attention is broken. As tech companies work to capture our attention in the current attention-extraction economy, our ability to focus can only become harder.

A meta-analysis of several dozen research studies indicates that higher levels of switching between different media channels is significantly linked to lower levels of both working memory and long-term memory. Given the current Extractive Attention Economy, and the increasing number of social media platforms and apps competing to capture our attention, basic human capacities — such as our memories — are increasingly under attack.

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Physical and Mental Health

Stress, loneliness, feelings of addiction, and increased risky health behavior

Why It Matters

As technology increasingly pervades our waking lives, research is showing a wide range of effects on our happiness, our self image, and our mental health.

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Physical and Mental Health

Evidence

Posting alcohol-related messages on Facebook can lead to an increase in alcoholic behavior and alcoholic identity in real life. Research analysis of several hundred college students revealed that the more they posted alcohol-related messages, the more their real life social groups tended to shift a few months later towards friends with higher alcohol use, which then in turn linked to an increase in their own levels of drinking a few months after that.

30%

of 18-44 year olds feel anxious if they haven’t checked Facebook in the last 2 hours. A recent survey of over 2,000 American adults indicates a high incidence of potential warning signs of Facebook addiction, particularly among 18-44 year olds, among whom 30% feel anxious if they haven't checked it for 2 hours. In fact, many are so hooked that 31% report checking it while driving and 16% while making love.

The greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume. MRI brain scans of Facebook users demonstrated a significant reduction in gray matter in the amygdala correlated with their level of addiction to Facebook. This pruning away of brain matter is similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts.

1 month

away from Facebook leads to a significant improvement in emotional well-being. In an experimental study of over 1,600 American adults (who normally used Facebook for up to an hour each day), deactivating Facebook accounts led to a significant increase in emotional well-being (including a reduction in loneliness and an increase in happiness), as well as a significant reduction in political polarization.

The more time you spend on Instagram, the more likely you are to suffer eating disorders such as orthorexia nervosa, (a clinical condition where sufferers obsess about ideal foods so much that they stop eating adequately, seriously endangering their health). According to research, no other social media platforms have this correlative effect. Scientists believe this is because images of food have more impact — and are remembered longer— than text, and because food images from "celebrity" Instagram users have a dramatically disproportionate influence on their followers' reactions to food. According to researchers, Instagram's algorithm recommendations allow othorexia sufferers to become trapped in an echo chamber of images which only show a distorted reality of food images and how to react to food.

The number of "Likes" on a celebrity Instagram account can significantly change how you see yourself. An experimental study showed that when women were exposed to different celebrity Instagram images, their ratings of their own facial appearance dropped in direct proportion to the number of "likes" attached to each image they saw. Given that there are 1 billion active Instagram users, and some celebrities have more than 150 million followers, the scale of impact is vast.

In just 3 years, there has been a quadrupling in the number of plastic surgeons with patients undergoing cosmetic surgery for the sake of looking good on social media (from 13% in 2016 to 55% in 2019). The greatest increase is in patients under the age of 30, particularly teenagers. Doctors point to the role of social media in creating an exaggerated idea of what is normal in beauty and as a result, distorting viewers' sense of their own appearance. According to clinicians, such Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) (aka “Snapchat Dysmorphia”) is rapidly on the increase.

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Social Relationships

Less empathy, more confusion and misinterpretation

Why It Matters

While social networks claim to connect us, all too often they distract us from connecting with those directly in front of us, leaving many feeling both connected and socially isolated.

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Social Relationships

Evidence

The mere presence of a mobile phone can disrupt the connection between two people, leading to reduced feelings of empathy, trust, and a sense of closeness. In a series of studies, researchers found that when pairs of strangers were asked to have meaningful conversations, their ability to connect emotionally was significantly reduced if a mobile phone was visible.

50%

of parents reported that mobile devices typically interrupted the time they spent with their children 3 or more times each day; only 11% reported that mobile devices did NOT interrupt their time with their children.

The more that someone treats an AI (such as Siri) as if it has human qualities, the more they later dehumanize actual humans, and treat them poorly.

2X

Children under age 14 spend nearly twice as long with tech devices (3 hours and 18 minutes per day) as they do in conversation with their families (1 hour and 43 minutes per day).

50%

of Americans report that their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their devices when they are trying to talk to them.

89%

of cellphone users admit to using their phones during their last social gathering (34% were checking for alerts). During social gatherings, 82% of millenials judge that it’s ok to read texts & emails, while 75% think it’s ok to send texts & emails.

People who took photos to share on Facebook experienced less enjoyment and less engagement with the scene compared to those who took photos purely for their own pleasure. Closer analysis indicates that taking photos to share on social media increases a user's focus on their own self-identity and self-presentation, distracting them from connecting to the world around them.

Parental use of mobile devices during playtime with their children can lead to significant levels of child distress. A study of 50 infant-mother pairs indicated that infants showed greater unhappiness, fewer positive emotions, and were significantly less likely to play with toys when their mothers looked at their devices for as little as 2 minutes.

When encountering someone with an opposing political viewpoint, people are more likely to judge them as warm and intelligent if they hear that person’s ideas spoken rather than written down. Unfortunately, many social media platforms are currently designed to focus on text, reducing the chances of genuine discussion and debate and increasing the possibility of polarization.

We are so distracted by our phones that we often fail to see the most basic things, sometimes at great cost to ourselves and others. Security camera footage from San Francisco public transit reveals that a gunman was able to pull out his gun and openly handle it at length without anyone noticing, before he eventually shot a fellow passenger.

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Politics and Elections

Propaganda, distorted dialogue & a disrupted democratic process

Why It Matters

Social media platforms are incentivized to amplify the most engaging content, tilting public attention towards polarizing and often misleading content. By selling micro targeting to the highest bidder, they enable manipulative practices that undermine democracies around the world.

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Politics and Elections

Evidence

Fake news stories posted before the 2016 US elections were still in the top 10 news stories circulating across Twitter almost 2 years later, indicating the staying power of such stories and their long-term impact on ongoing political dialogue.

More fake political headlines were shared on Facebook than real ones during the last 3 months of the 2016 US elections.

Exposure to a fake political news story can rewire your memories: in a study, where over 3,000 voters were shown fake stories, many voters later not only “remembered” the fake stories as if they were real events but also "remembered" additional, rich details of how and when the events took place.

The most popular news story of the 2016 US elections was fake. In fact, three times as many Americans read and shared it on their social media accounts as they did the top-performing article from the New York Times. (The fake news story alleged that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump for President).

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The Next Generations

From developmental delays to suicide, children face a host of physical, mental and social challenges

Why It Matters

Exposure to unrestrained levels of digital technology can have serious long term consequences for children’s development, creating permanent changes in brain structure that impact how children will think, feel, and act throughout their lives.

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The Next Generations

Evidence

3X more likely

Children who have been cyberbullied are 3x more likely to contemplate suicide compared to their peers. The experience of being bullied online is significantly more harrowing than "traditional bullying", potentially due to the victim’s awareness that this is taking place in front of a much larger public audience.

Preschoolers who use screen-based media for more than 1 hour each day have been shown to have significantly less development in core brain regions involved in language and literacy. rain scans indicate that the more time spent on screens, the lower the child's language skills, and the less structural integrity in key brain areas responsible for language. This is one of the first studies to assess the structural neurobiological impacts of screen-based media use in preschoolers; it raises serious questions as to how screen use may affect the basic development of young children's brains.

58 minutes

per day is the average amount of time 2-4 years old spend on mobile devices. And 46% children under the age of 2 years have used a mobile device at least once, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children under 2 years should not use any screen media.

In a longitudinal study tracking over 200 children from the age of 2 years to 5 years old, children with higher levels of screen time showed greater delays in development across a range of important measures, including language, problem-solving, and social interaction. Analyses indicated that the level of screen time was significantly linked to the specific level of developmental delay 12 -14 months later. This is a critical period in a child's life: as the researchers note, the current data indicates that exposure to excessive screen time during these early years can have serious effects "impinging on children's ability to develop optimally".

Children who experienced cyberbullying during their adolescence were significantly more likely to engage in risk-taking health behavior as adults. Boys who were cyberbully-victims were significantly more likely to smoke as young adults (p = 0.014) while teenage girls were significantly more likely to show a lifetime usage of drugs (p < 0.04).

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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

Why It Matters

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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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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