Over the years, our smartphones have become extensions of our bodies. In fact, it’s rare to walk down the street without needing to sidestep someone who’s nose is buried in their phone. There’s even a name for the feeling of anxiety caused by separation from one’s mobile: nomophobia (“no-mobile” phobia). Why are we so addicted?
Smartphones serve a multitude of functional purposes, including access to information, entertainment and communication. And most of us consider them to be a necessary, integral part of our lives. However, like other addictions, interacting with our smartphones can stimulate a rush of the “feel good” chemical dopamine in our brains, reinforcing whatever behaviour preceded it and causing us to eagerly anticipate the next text, tweet or notification of a “like” on social media. Of course, human beings naturally crave social interaction, and social media enables this at the touch of a button which drives our obsessive behaviour.
In and of itself, the above may not be a problem. However, issues arise when excessive use of social media starts to displace “real” face-to-face interactions, leading to feelings of isolation, or takes away from healthy activities like exercising and getting enough sleep. Studies have also looked at the theory of upward social comparison, where people compare themselves to others’ perfectly curated (and often photoshopped) images portraying wealth, success, popularity and beauty, which can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, the very platforms that introduced social media to the world are now attempting to “detox” users. Instagram, owned by Facebook, has run a test in seven countries, including New Zealand and Australia, where the number of ‘likes’ or video views that posts receive are hidden from everyone except the post’s author. The change was made in order to encourage “followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get”. In other words: attempting to reduce the popularity contest of posting content and competitive social comparison. Facebook recently confirmed it is also considering rolling this out across the Facebook platform.
In addition, Facebook and Instagram have also recently announced a policy to restrict users under the age of 18 from seeing posts that promote the purchase of weight-loss products or cosmetic surgery procedures. This comes in response to conversations around the “role social media can play in creating pressure for people to look or act a certain way”.
While the steps Facebook and Instagram are taking to influence positive change are commendable, it is interesting to explore what an extensive social media footprint could lead to in an extreme case. And we don’t need to use our imagination – China’s plan for a national social credit system by 2020 aims to encourage socially responsible behaviour and build trust, by tracking and scoring citizen’s behaviour and then rewarding or punishing accordingly. In addition to a financial credit score, the system will integrate information from social media sites, health records, shopping websites, surveillance cameras and more.
Citizens will have their social credit scores reduced for behaviours such as non-payment of fines, criticising the government, playing too many video games or jaywalking. If a citizen’s score is low enough for them to be added to the “blacklist”, punishments can include being unable to enrol your children in certain schools or buy high-speed train or flight tickets (five million people have already been barred from high-speed trains and 17 million people barred from flights). In addition, these scores are made publicly available, bringing shame on those deemed “untrustworthy”. When a blacklisted person crosses certain intersections in Beijing, facial-recognition technology projects their face and ID number on massive electronic billboards1. On the other hand, citizens with the highest scores will receive perks such as parking reservations, discounts on winter heating and even preferential hospital admissions. For now, many Chinese feel positive about the newfound order the system can bring and are happy to make the most of the benefits. There are currently several localised pilot programs, but it remains to be seen whether China will reach its 2020 target for a nationwide system. In the meantime, there has been widespread concern around the potential abuse of power and invasiveness, especially as technology develops further.
Left unchecked, the extent of data that social media companies have on users and the potential power that this can bring is unnerving. This is one of several reasons why Washington is pushing for regulation of the big US technology companies and closer to home, we’ve seen the Christchurch Call to action against online extremism. Although Facebook and Instagram’s steps may be small, it’s clear, and encouraging, that social pressure from both customers and broader communities can force change in some of the world’s largest corporates. This likely wouldn’t have been possible without the rise of technology (and ironically, social media) giving a voice to everyday people. And any company that doesn’t listen to these voices risks a backlash that could put their business in jeopardy.
At Milford, understanding both the opportunities and risks associated with data and privacy, including how a company responds to them, is an important part of how we invest for tomorrow
 TIME Davos 2019 Issue.