Social media sites know everything about you, or at least that's their goal. And with every click, every "like," every message you view or ignore, they learn more about you.
My brother has been a faithful member of Alcoholics Anonymous for decades. He's the guy who opens the church and brews the coffee for the weekly meeting.
But since March, his meetings have been on Zoom. So he had an idea. On Zoom, he could meet anywhere, right? So why not go somewhere new. He looked up AA meetings on Google, wrote to a group in County Mayo, Ireland, and asked if they'd share their meeting link. Voila! There he was, at a meeting in a little village in Ireland.
Technology and social media are amazing. What would I have done without texting, emails and Zoom during isolation, with kids far away and a new granddaughter in October? It's great to keep up with friends on Facebook. Twitter and other platforms provide lots of news. It's a blessing in so many ways.
But we're increasingly aware of the dark side of social media. The urgency became obvious when our U.S. Capitol was attacked by insurrectionists who based their violence on lies about our election and absurd conspiracy theories propagated by a constant diet of social media.
"The Social Dilemma" is a documentary made before our recent terrorist attack. Available on Netflix, it includes interviews with many of the brilliant people who brought us Google, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other sites that occupy so much of our time. The warnings they present are sobering. I have friends who have quit Facebook after watching it.
Social media sites know everything about you, or at least that's their goal. And with every click, every "like," every message you view or ignore, they learn more about you. It's a constant process, a never-ending attempt to lure you into more -- more scrolling, more addiction, more hours spent on their sites.
When they see what you like, what you click on, they give you more of the same. That's how some people fall into a rabbit hole of increasingly more frightening misinformation and conspiracy. So you're interested in the "lizard people conspiracy?" Or you're sure there's a "deep state" running things? Wait, says the site, there's more!
The film provides a realistic portrayal of how a young person might become radicalized by social media, something we've come to associate with jihadis. But now that we've seen our own home-grown terrorism, we realize how powerfully persuasive social media can be even to susceptible adults.
Addicting us is what social media has to do to sell their product, and to sell the products their sites sell. It's built into their algorithms.
And what is social media doing to our kids? We've heard of young teens seeking plastic surgery so they could resemble the "influencers" they follow on Instagram.
The statistics on the skyrocketing rates in the last decade of suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety among teens are terrifying, and those rates are rising fastest among the youngest teens. Meanwhile, teen pregnancy rates are dropping. On the face of it, that's a good thing, right? But it's a sign of a frightening trend -- teens are increasingly living their lives on screen, rather than in in-person relationships. This is not healthy.
Solutions? The "Social Dilemma" offers some technical and regulatory ones, but also practical advice. Don't give your kids smartphones until they're well into their teens, and then be vigilant. It's very important to get your own news from a variety of well-regarded sources. And monitor the time you spend scrolling.
Perhaps a good question to ask as we look forward to Lent: How much time do I spend daily in prayer versus how much time on social media?
- Effie Caldarola is a columnist with the Catholic News Service.
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