Ctrl+T, FB: Ethical questions about addictive social media

NOTE: The following is a blog post written for a class I’m taking this semester, “Legal & Ethical Issues in Information Technology”. Between now and the end of April, I will be syndicating content I post on the class blog, so most of the writing I do in this period will be about technology ethics and law. Enjoy!

Is social media addictive, and what role should the companies behind social media products play to ensure their products do not directly lead to an addiction to the product? What about any company with an addictive product?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking of lately. I’m writing this with Facebook and Twitter tabs open, checking every couple of minutes, awaiting a new notification or email at any moment. Over the past few months, it seems I’ve gotten more and more tied to social media, sometimes spending hours on such sites even when there is not a lot of content to see, and as a result struggling to stay focused. Ironically, I’ve also felt more and more distant from my friends (a feeling backed up by academic research).

But first, what is an addiction? From my research, it’s a bit like scratching an itch which makes the itchy spot even more itchy - in other words, something which makes a problem worse without actually solving it.

There are a lot of ethical concerns I have with social media products - is it okay to “exploit” human psychology for business gain? I have heard Facebook and others have entire teams of psychologists and user experience researchers trying to find out how to create more engagement on their products. Simon Sinek talks about some of the challenges of dealing with this technology while discussing the millennial generation. One person I’ve been reading recently is Nir Eyal, who writes about habit-forming products, and he does give a good deal of insight into “addictive” products. I also listened to a longer podcast with him which covers some of the same subjects. The part I found most interesting was that companies such as Facebook actually could help prevent people getting addicted to their products if they wanted to. It makes me wonder what role software engineers have in this picture.

Social media, while seemingly quite simple, has complex dynamics involved which needs many different disciplines to understand. Thus I believe applying Disclosive Computer Ethics seems like it would be able to provide a framework for answering some of the more difficult ethical questions, such as the ones posed at the beginning of this post.

(the pages I linked to were used as resources in writing this blog post)


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