15 Mar 2019

From the Head of Lindfield

Social Media: Friend or Foe

I recently came across an interesting article by New York Times Columnist David Brooks around social media. He asserts that high-tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are in danger of becoming “social pariahs” like the tobacco industry, which makes billions “peddling a destructive addiction”.

Brooks points out some criticisms of the tech giants. There are two, especially around social media, that are relevant to our boys and their situation:

  • Their negative impact on young people – “Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion,” he says. “Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world” – less physically spending time with friends, less interaction with others, less experience with actual work.

I catch the train to Lindfield every morning and home again in the afternoon. My times are more congruent with many high school students and upper primary students who often arrive early and leave later due to sporting and extra-curricular commitments. I am constantly intrigued by the absence of interaction between these teenagers. They are glued to their phones and do not interact with others around them. We have a plethora of senior schools further along the north shore line and when groups of these students get on the train, they may sit together but even then they all have a phone out and interact online and not much in person.

  • The Attention Economy – Most tech companies make their revenue from the amount of time you spend on their site and so the structure and engineering of social media sites is designed to hold you there. “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain,” says Brooks, “and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.” Examples cited from Marshall Memo are: Snapstreak that rewards friends who send Snapchat photos every day; “bottomless bowls” in news feeds with one page leading to another and another; irregularly timed rewards so people are constantly checking their devices.

This idea ties in with a very interesting podcast by Sam Harris, around what technology is doing to us and how tech companies manipulate users. The podcast interviews a former design ethicist at Google – Tristan Harris. Harris looks at the ethics of human persuasion in the online world. In the podcast, he talks about some of the data around the measures of regret. These measures look at a person’s response after spending time on different apps. It was found that the apps that achieved the highest measures of regret were the social media apps – Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. These are all apps where the revenue is based on the time users spend on the site on a regular basis. When you realise that this is the motivation for all the features of a particular site then it does change the way you feel about interacting with that site.

But there are certain core issues with social media, says Brooks: These technologies “are extremely useful for the tasks and pleasures that require shallower forms of consciousness, but they often crowd out and destroy the deeper forms of consciousness people need to thrive. Online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection… Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things.” 

The Newington Headmaster, Michael Parker was fairly candid when he spoke to the parents at last week’s P & F meeting about the limited upside and considerable downside of social media proliferation in young people. His message mirrored that of Brooks, social media is a poor substitute for actual interactions, social media provides a distorted view of relationships, self-perception and values. If as reported in the Harris podcast the average smart phone user checks their phone over 150 times a day, then we need to be very careful about how our children, many of whom have smartphones, are spending their time.

As parents we are aware that our children should not be accessing the well-known social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (because these platforms require users to be 13+). But as social media platforms evolve they continue to target newer and younger audiences with their kid friendly flashy graphics and animated images – TikTok (formerly Musical.ly) and Episode Interactive are two recent examples (and these platforms require parental consent for users between the ages of 13 and 18). Episode Interactive boasts “6 billion episodes viewed … which adds up to over 83,000 years of combined viewing time! …with over 12 million registered creators and 100,000 stories.” Ultimately all social media platforms are designed with the same goal in mind: to hook kids into time on site with the idea that you need to be active on social media or you or your son is missing out.

There are short term fixes to overusing technology – for example, an App called Moment to track and control phone usage or Screen Time which is now part of the Apple iPhone, however, parental monitoring of children’s online lives is vital.  It is difficult for our boys to understand the long-term effect of being online without parents repeatedly discussing internet and phone safety with them.

“How Evil Is Tech?” by David Brooks in The New York Times, November 21, 2017,



Making Sense Podcast



Time Well Spent Foundation



David Brooks on the Scourge of Technology, Marshall Memo, Issue, 713, November 27, 2017


Ben Barrington-Higgs



26 Northcote Road
Lindfield NSW 2070
+61 2 9416 4280


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