Three Things This Week
1. If You Like Your TikTok, You Can Keep Your TikTok
What it is: California-based software company Oracle will purchase TikTok in an eleventh-hour deal that protects the app from being shut down by the US government.
Why it raises more questions than it answers: At one point, it seemed likely that TikTok would be purchased by tech giant Microsoft. This deal with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and Oracle, is a bit of a curveball. Oracle sells database software and trades in “the cloud,” which is interesting considering that so much of the political battle over TikTok was over how and where the app stores its data. Will Oracle have the tools to address TikTok’s problematic algorithms and mitigate risks the app poses to its users, many of them underage? It’s a question we won’t know the answer to for some time.
2. Bad News for the Fake News Bubble
What it is: New polling published by Axios suggests that while 83% of college Gen Z students get their news from social media, only 7% consider social media to be a reliable source of information.
Why it’s a win for Team Objectivity: Could Gen Z erode the power of misinformation? Much has been made about misrepresentation and “fake news” in social media. Since teens spend hours parsing through incredible amounts of information online, it makes sense to be concerned about the conclusions they might draw as a result. Although this new survey has a small sample size, it suggests that Gen Z has a nuanced and sophisticated filter for the information that they consume. In fact, your teens may be convinced that you’re the one more likely to fall for misinformation, not them. Ask your teens about how digital natives establish a “truth filter,” and how they flag false information in their own internet trawling.
3. Keeping the Faith in an Uncertain World
What it is: Comprehensive data published this month by the Pew Data Center shows that teens with parents who are very committed to church and religious practices are extremely likely to say they share all of their parents' beliefs.
Why it’s hope to hold on to: When church, prayer, and talking about Jesus start to feel like an uphill battle in your home, it can feel like you’re on the losing end of making your teen care. But this research shows that teens self-identify with the beliefs of their parents at an extremely high rate – and families where religious engagement is a big part of daily life are even more likely to have teens who prioritize their faith. (Christianity Today analyzed the data here if you don’t feel like parsing through Pew’s whole report.) Religious affiliation in the United States has been on a downward trend for decades, but data like this suggests that teens are more willing to adopt faith practice when they see high levels of enthusiasm from their parents. Regardless, our goal as parents is never simply to create carbon copies of our own beliefs, but to help our teens make faith their own.
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The Social Dilemma
The Social Dilemma is a new documentary about how social media apps are deliberately designed to exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology, and how this leads to tech addiction, mental health issues, and political polarization. The film features interviews with several of Big Tech’s defectors (former employees of Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.), contrasting what they thought they were creating with concerns they now have about social media’s role in our lives.
The film highlights Tristan Harris and his work with the Center for Humane Technology, which protests design tactics that manipulate users into spending as much time as possible online. This “attention economy,” as it’s sometimes called, is a business model where algorithms track what we spend the most time looking at, and then serve us more of that content, neatly sandwiched between advertisements. Designers for this economy know how the brain works, and create sophisticated feedback loops designed to hijack our natural desire for connection. This keeps teens stuck in validation deficits, and promotes outrage and polarization by presenting us with “news” that only confirms our biases (regardless of whether or not that news is actually real, or true).
The issue is not with technology; the issue is with how our technology is being designed. This design is something we think everyone should learn more about, and for that reason we recommend watching the film, maybe even with your family. If you do, be aware that some of the vignettes of a “real family” struggling with tech addiction can feel a little corny, and that most of the interviews are backed by foreboding music, which can feel a little heavy-handed. (There’s also some occasional profanity, some segments that might raise questions about evolution, and an A.I. bot personified as three evil Vincent Kartheisers. Viewer discretion advised.)
Danny Leigh called the film “flawed in several places and still essential viewing.” We agree. As Sherry Turkle once put it, “If we feel ‘addicted to our phones,’ it is not just a personal weakness. We are exhibiting a predictable response to a perfectly executed design. Looking at things through this lens might put us halfway to making new choices, needed changes.” Our hope is that this film, and Tristan Harris’s work as a whole, could be part of that process for your family.