Facebook may be the least of our worries

1060 words

It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…

  • Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
  • Your smart-TV is spying on you
  • Teens are online constantly
  • Phones in class impair performance

1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment.

Tthere’s not much mystery to the deep conflict buried in the FB business model. Keep abusing user privacy on a grand scale and you keep making money hand over fist. Play nice and you don’t. Maybe Zuckerberg will have a spiritual conversion or Congress will develop a social conscience about privacy. Meanwhile, the UK Commons select committee on disinformation and “fake news” has just published a report that excoriates Facebook and raises what The Guardian calls “existential” issues.

2. Your smart-tv: no escape. Pay-TV is dying a slow, well-deserved death (aka “cable-TV” in Canada), thanks to the cord-cutting trend. Cord-cutters in the U.S. will increase by one forecast to 33 million by the end of 2018, up from 24.9 million last year, a jump of 33%.

But wait. Here come the smart-TVs, which found their way into 45% of US TV households by the end of 2017. TVs and other household devices get to be called “smart” on the simple basis of being Internet-enabled. Sounds great — until you discover that in exchange for helping you find stuff to watch, your smart-TV uses its new-found brains to collect detailed information about your second-by-second viewing habits. And that ain’t all.

The software loaded into smart-TVs by 3rd-party providers like Samba TV uses your home Wi-Fi network to identify all the other devices you have running — game consoles, phones, tablets, etc. Samba competitors Vizio and Alphonso have already been caught invading customer privacy without prior knowledge or consent.

Later in July, the Times ran a self-help guide: “How to Stop Your Smart TV From Tracking What You Watch.” Every vendor uses unique setup features, meaning there are different instructions provided here for products from Samsung, LG, Sony, Vizio, Roku, Amazon, Google and Apple. Even if Facebook disappears from the planet, there’ll be no shortage of creeps trying to get your data so you can get more “appropriate” ads.

3. Teens online: here comes the future. In May, the Pew Research Center released an update to its survey of teen technology trends (teens 13-17 for survey: pdf here). There’s bad news for the epidemic of screen addiction and bad news for Facebook.

For all the anxiety some parents are feeling about digital life, their teens are getting even more hooked. On penetration: 95% of teens say they have or have access to a smartphone, a 22-percentage-point increase from the 73% of teens who said this in 2014-2015. On use: 45% of teens say they use the Internet “almost constantly,” nearly double the 24% who said this in the 2014-2015 survey. 

And the rest are no slouches. Pew reports that another 44% say they go online several times a day — so roughly nine-in-ten teens go online at least multiple times per day. We can see two consequences.

As time online increases, the experiences that cause harm — bullying, social inattention, hacking, etc — will multiply. Plus teens may have less time for sexting and other trivial pursuits as they mature. But the habits they’re forming today are bound to have a strong carry-over effect.

The bad news for Facebook: it’s “no longer the dominant online platform among teens.” Since the previous Pew survey three years ago, the proportion of teens 13-17 who say they use Facebook has dropped a full 20 percentage points — from 71% to 51%. Many of those kids have forsaken Zuck and Co for its two big competitors, YouTube and Snapchat. Even buying up Instagram hasn’t helped Facebook much. As the graph shows, in the crucial “use most often” category, Instagram scores a mere 15% — way behind YouTube and Snapchat.

Pew Research Center, May 2018

I asked my one-person focus group — my no longer quite teenaged daughter — what her cohort sees in Facebook these days. Not much. Facebook has fallen out of favor for posting statuses and been reduced to study groups, memes and occasional events.

4. “Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance.” This is the title of a just-published study by Rutgers psychologist Arnold Glass (open-source pdf posted here). It received remarkably widespread coverage in the mainstream press last week, including comments by Dr. Kevin Riutzel of the ABC News Medical Unit.

Glass outlines the long history of studies purporting to show that trying to do two or more things at once means you’ll remember less from at least one of them. That seems like confirmation of my confiscatory classroom strategy, even though my evidence for the harms caused by digital inattention is anecdotal (see last 3 paras of my previous post). So why is Glass setting out to prove the obvious?

He isn’t. He claims to be achieving something different in at least three ways. First, unlike many prior studies, his experiment is set in a classroom not a lab. Second, unlike my chief concern, his interest is in after-class retention not immediate performance. And last, his methodology has established a causal relationship between distraction now and poor performance on a later exam — not just a correlation.

In press interviews, Glass warns that “dividing attention is having an insidious effect that is impairing [students’] exam performance and final grade.” He also believes his findings are “absolutely” applicable to high school, middle school, even meetings. 

Is anybody in our educational institutions listening to these warnings, after 60 years of academic research showing the harms of inattention? It seems we’ve come too far to rely on something as nuanced as good social scientific research — whether in classrooms or meeting rooms.

Those busy teens in the Pew survey are going to arrive in college feeling more entitled, more addicted, more oblivious to social niceties. And if you thought Facebook was bad, just wait till your “smart” home gets lots more company for the smart-TV as we surf inexorably towards the Internet of Things and millions more reasons for behaving badly.

D.E.