A few years ago, I started to notice a troubling trend during my everyday experiences that only seems to be getting worse.

People can’t seem to separate from their smartphones.

Do you notice the same thing?

Recently, I stopped by my local gym for a quick workout on my way home. As I began to warm up, I noticed that, of the five people in the gym, four of them were glued to their phones as they worked out.

One guy, for example, after finishing a set of squats (which took no more than 20 seconds) immediately grabbed his phone and spent 2-3 minutes staring into it before returning to the barbell.

Another young man scrolled through his Facebook feed while balancing on a foam roller, never breaking eye contact with his phone.

The next day, while driving to work, as I  deliberately watched the faces of passing drivers, more than half of them had their eyes tilted downward, peering at their phones, as they drove!

Have you observed similar behavior? Or…have you done something similar yourself?

In case you think I’m overreacting, consider these recent statistics:
– The average smartphone owner will click, tap, or swipe their phone 2,617 times a day.
– 66% of the population shows signs of nomophobia (yes, there’s a clinical term for it!) which is the fear of being without your phone.
– 69% of smartphone users check their device within the first five minutes after waking up.
– On average, people will spend 5 years and four months of their lifetimes on social media.

How did we get here? — The Cause

In the early 2000s during the predawn of the smartphone,  a group of young,  ambitious leaders fueled the growth of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, and Pinterest. Their resourcefulness, creativity, and passion for technology helped to usher in a new age of digital connectivity.

But when the inevitable shift to advertising monetization drove the value of these companies into the billions, many of these idealistic leaders defected, citing growing ethical concerns.

Their stories and dire warnings are compiled in a recently-released, must-watch documentary, The Social Dilemma.

As these former executives recount, Facebook’s evolution from a social platform to an advertising medium changed everything as tech companies began to compete for our attention but with far more powerful technology than ever existed before.

Consider that, from the beginning of the modern computer era in the 1960s to today, processing power has increased approximately 1 trillion times. Nothing else that we know of has ever improved at anywhere close to that rate!

I grew up in the car industry, for example, and in those five decades, automobiles have become infinitely more powerful and complex, but nowhere near the exponential growth of computing power.

Most importantly, our brains have not evolved or adapted at all in this short span of time.

In dramatic fashion, The Social Dilemma unpacks the rise of a whole new industry known as Surveillance Capitalism built around one ubiquitous and observable reality: Everything you do online—every video you watch,  every Facebook post or tweet you publish, every “like” button you click or website you visit—is carefully tracked, creating predictive algorithms that constantly improve, gaining more intelligence and predictive capacity with each digital action.

For example, here’s how Facebook’s first Director of Monetization and Pinterest’s former president, Tim Kendall, describes the science behind the common practice of tagging photographs:

So if you get an email saying your friend just tagged you in a photo, of course, you’re going to click on that email and look at the photo. It’s not something you can just decide to ignore. This is a deep-seated human personality (trait) they’re tapping into. What you should ask yourself is, ‘Why doesn’t that email have the photo in it? It would be a lot easier to see the photo.’ When Facebook discovered the volume of responses to tagging notifications, they dialed up the hell out of it because they saw it as a great way to grow activity—to get people tagging each other in photos all day long.

The result: People simply can’t stop.

One of the poignant quotes shared in the film captures the gravitas of this new age:

There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’:  illegal drugs and software. – Edward Tufte, computer scientist and professor at Yale University

What is it doing to us? — The Consequence

“So what?” you might reply. “Television has been distracting and manipulating us for generations.”

Maybe, but the fact is there’s a massive difference in the depth and pervasiveness of these two mediums.

TV is episodic—you don’t carry a television around with you 24/7. For an increasingly large percentage of the world’s population, the presence of smartphones occupies nearly 100% of our waking consciousness.

One of the alarming findings highlighted in the documentary film is the sobering statistics on Generation Z, the first generation that began using social media in middle school.

They’re experiencing unprecedented increases in depression, self-harm, and suicide.

They’re more fragile, depressed, and much more risk-averse than any other generation. The rates at which they get driver’s licenses are dripping as are the rates that they never go out on a date. This is an unprecedented change in a generation of children and it is wreaking havoc on families who wonder, ‘My God, what is happening to my kid?’ – Jonathon Haidt, Ph.D., Social Psychologist

The Echo Chamber Effect

Another side effect of social media is reflected in a new report by Pew Research, which found that what they called “extremely online people,” meaning those who rely primarily on social media for their political news, are among the least informed and most easily-deceived groups in America.

When evaluated on their current political knowledge, those who turned to social media for news scored lower than any other group. Those who relied on a variety of sources, including news websites, cable, and print news, scored highest.

However, exclusive Facebook and Twitter users did score higher in their knowledge of conspiracy theories, such as 5G being the cause of the coronavirus or that Bill Gates is planning to inject people with tracking microchips via vaccines.

In other words, according to this research, people’s ability to discern truth and fact-based news from fake news largely depends on the amount of time they spend on social media.

Consider the polarization that has shaped our culture in recent years, from Pizzagate and QAnon to the baseless allegations of voter fraud in the recent Presidential election.

We live in a world that’s becoming radically polarized—different groups of people living in different worlds, populated with utterly different facts.

These “echo chambers” convince their members to distrust everybody on “the outside” of that chamber. And that means that an insider’s trust for other insiders can grow unchecked.

Social media is largely responsible for this alarming trend.

In a reference one former tech executive makes to what he calls “disinformation for profit,” he shares how Facebook’s algorithm serves up content based on users’ proneness to conspiracy theories. “You need to understand: You do not control your newsfeed,” he reminds us.

It’s why, according to a recent study, fake news travels up to 6 times faster than true news.

Based on the troubling trends portrayed in stark and often chilling detail in The Social Dilemma, how do we respond?

What can we do to protect ourselves and our children from such a powerful and pervasive force?

That’s what I will explore in Part 2—stay tuned!