iTHINK | Walking the fine line between use and abuse

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Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree?

I traveled the world and the seven seas

Everybody’s looking for something

Some of them want to use you

Some of them want to get used by you

Some of them want to abuse you

Some of them want to be abused

— Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics

I recently watched the documentary “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix where insiders from tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Pinterest spoke about the behavioral and societal issues that have emerged since the dawn of social media.

In my very first iThink entry, I wrote about how I sometimes catch myself falling prey to the instant gratification of “likes” and reactions from my friends and contacts whenever I post or share tidbits of my day on my social media accounts.

It was quite interesting to hear from the men and women who pioneered some of those platforms and features (including the guy who invented the “like” button) that all of these have, in fact, been engineered to get users hooked.

As a father to two young girls (who are both quite active on social media), one of the more disturbing revelations of the documentary was the increase in cases of self-harm and suicide attempts among teenage girls that coincided with the arrival of social media.

The pervasiveness of the technology has warped how we process social interactions and social approval. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to realize how dangerous this can be to individuals who may not have fully developed their sense of self.

“We’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of what we do,” said one of the tech experts interviewed in the documentary. It’s bad enough that deception and manipulation have become very common tactics by opportunistic people in these challenging times. Sadly and evidentially, as Social Dilemma clearly pointed out, it has become even easier to execute in this era of social media.

It’s strange that despite all the warnings and exposés in the last few years, we’re still hooked on our phones and social media accounts. We all have this strange sense that our devices are “listening” to us and we’re all concerned about data privacy and are aware of the cybersecurity risks involved in having our profiles publicly available – and yet, we’re all still here.

We’re too happy enjoying the benefits – both real and imagined – that these platforms offer that we’ve consented to pretty much handing over our privacy and let these companies into our unspoken thoughts.

Being a communications professional, I have a special fascination for how words are used to convey a particular message. And I found it notable that the technology sector, particularly the software industry, is just one of two industries that use the term “users” for their consumers. The other is the drug industry.

I’m not even going to go into the illegal drug trade (that’s just unequivocally bad). Let’s stick with pharmaceutical companies. It’s clear that when used properly – with doctor’s prescriptions and for their intended use – they do wonderful things to improve our quality of life. Anyone who’s had a loved one endure the pain of cancer treatments would know how important opioids are for alleviating their suffering. If you’ve had a fall and, not being 24 anymore, your backache is making it tough to walk, you’re grateful to have those little over-the-counter painkillers in your medicine cabinet.

However, there is a fine line between use and abuse. In the US, we’ve heard reports of the opioid crisis and how widespread addiction to prescription drugs has destroyed lives and families.

We can’t just outlaw these drugs – they perform a necessary and desirable function for people who truly need it. To do so would mean unnecessarily inflicting pain on innocent people after medical science has made it entirely preventable.

The same thing goes for technology.

It has made the magic of being able to stay connected with your loved ones who are far away possible and easy. The importance of this function has become particularly highlighted amid the pandemic as travel restrictions have limited if not halted family reunions, weddings, and homecomings. Even if time zone differences make scheduling video calls challenging, you can see how your sibling in the US or best friend in Europe is doing by going through their social media walls.

Everyday tasks, such as getting food and essentials delivered or buying gifts for yourself and your loved ones, have become doable with just a few finger taps.

But it is precisely this ease of doing things that also makes them dangerously addictive. The instant gratification we get from them just seems to drive a greater urge to use them more.

I’m not going to delete my apps or throw away my phone or ban my kids from using social media. Life as we know it has made them essential, and doing so may cause more harm than good. What I am going to do for myself and my family is to be more conscious and aware of the “hows” of technology use — how we use it, how much we use it, and how it is affecting us.

Stay safe, everyone.

The author is the vice president and head of corporate affairs & communications of BPI and is concurrently the executive director of BPI Foundation

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