Ledger of Harms

Alpha Version Updated December 14, 2018

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, which can create 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

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

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

Almost 90%

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

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

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

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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

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

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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

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

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

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.

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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

18.5%

of total tweets from the top 50k active users on Twitter came from bots, when sampled during three weeks of the 2016 presidential election

Facebook's product team is out of touch with many countries, such as Cambodia in 2017, where they tested a news feed feature change that drastically shrank the audience for activist writers during political unrest

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

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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

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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