Monday, January 07, 2013

Is social media making us anti-social?

Has social media made people anti-social? Or has it improved the way people interact? With an ever increasing number of people seemingly permanently glued to the Internet or other electronic devices, some fear that technology is beginning to control people's behaviour. In short technology is controlling us rather than the other way round.

Less face to face interaction

Social media has "stopped students talking normally to each other," one teacher at a college in Maidstone suggested. "They will spend their time in lessons and spend their time trying to get on social media and as soon as there's a break they'll rush out and then spend the next hour talking on Facebook, not talking to each other," Jane Williams told the BBC programme You and Yours.

"They say they can't live without their phones," the teacher says of the students, whenever the subject is broached . "The say that they have to speak to other people and that's the only way to do it. But they're not speaking to the people with them."

And according to this teacher it's not just the students. The adults in the college were just as guilty of immersing themselves in the digital soup of social media.

"Some of my colleagues, if they have a problem with their husband or wife, or whatever, and they seem a bit moody, they say, 'I'll go on Facebook and see what's wrong with him because he will probably have written it there'."

Gaming addictions

So-called social gaming is also a problem for some. Parents have found their children drawn into online gaming using such modules as XBox Live and PS3 where they will play for hours with other players over the Internet. As well as the wasted hours spent on such activity there are financial risks. Credit card numbers have to be entered on signing up for such services, and parents have found themselves facing large credit card bills after their children bought 'points'.

Excluded from group

There have been some advantages with certain aspects of social media. Facebook has undoubtedly helped family members, separated by vast distances, connect and interact with each other.

This of course relies on all parties being on Facebook. The older members of a family can often find themselves excluded from the 'conversation' since fewer people within this age group are connected to the Internet, or even have a computer.

While there are a significant number of so-called 'silver-surfers'. there are in fact many above pensionable age who are becoming increasingly isolated and ignored as the world becomes more connected through the Internet.

For such individuals there are not only technical challenges but also costs. Even a modest computer will cost upwards of £200 and even the most basic of broadband packages will add at least the same again over the course of a year. For the elderly, struggling to pay bills and feed themselves on a meagre state pension, such extra costs cannot be justified, or are seen at the very least, as unnecessary luxuries.

Border restrictions

Cost and technical know how may not be the only obstacle. There are restrictions which cross borders too. China in particular creates many problems for people wishing to communicate between family inside the country and those who are living or working abroad. Nearly all foreign social media websites are blocked inside China, making it almost impossible for many in the country to keep abreast of what their foreign friends or relatives living abroad are doing.

Of course there are Chinese social media platforms, which are highly regulated and censored. However it is not so much the censorship which creates a problem, but the language and registration procedures. Any foreigner wishing to connect with their friends on RenRen, China's equivalent to Facebook, or Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, will have to first have to navigate the Chinese language website. Real names are required, and an ID card number or passport number is also mandatory in many cases. Furthermore it is also often necessary to verify the opening of an account through the sending of an SMS text from a registered mobile phone number.

Such loops and obstacles often discourage foreigners from setting up accounts with Chinese social media sites, and as such China is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, as is the rest of the world a little disconnected from China.

Educational concerns

But aside such border issues, in China as in the rest of the world, micro-blogging, Facebook-like sites and picture sharing sites are extremely popular, especially amongst the young. There are some advantages, as already highlighted, however there are fears from some experts that so-called smart phones are making children less smart.

Shortly before Christmas Google posted a few quaint festive pictures on its Google+ page. One showed a scene of a polar bear lazing in an armchair reading from a mobile phone, some mice on the floor gazing at a small screen on another device while Google's Android robot sat in another chair reading from its flagship Nexus 7 tablet computer.

Cute as the image was, there were some that were somewhat dismayed by picture. "I remember the days when families would talk around the fire while drinking eggnog. We would actually have conversations, talk about life, share stories and bond together," one Google+ user Ryan Brown posted. "Now its a generation of having your face in your phone, iPad and totally unaware of your surroundings or life itself."

"This picture makes me sad. Life is too short to have your time wasted on a laptop, cellphone or device. You'll regret it when your loved ones pass away, your sons and daughters grow up and you missed out, or possibly find yourself alone on the holidays due to your addiction to social media. Wake up and live life."

Family friction

There can't have been many families who did not feel just a little aggrieved this Christmas as kids sat around seemingly more interested in staring into a small black device while listening to music on an iPod. In some families there was undoubtedly friction and even rows as children failed to pull themselves away from their mobile devices.

Mobile and social media maybe the driving forces of the next wave of digital change, but these advances are reducing our attention spans and creating new dilemmas for the way we live and work, according to Nic Newman, a digital strategist and former BBC Future Media executive.

Control & risks

Increasing amounts of people's lives are being controlled by their mobile phones and other Internet connected devices. Bank cards, loyalty cards, travel cards and boarding passes are being sucked out of people's physical wallets and becoming integrated into smartphone software.

On the one hand this is driving convenience and greater transparency. But on the other hand, the implications of losing such a device has never been greater. And with smartphone theft on the rise the risks of identity theft and financial repercussions are all too great [BBC]. 

Even without such drastic situations occurring, there are a growing number of risks manifesting themselves through online activities. Newman expects a backlash surrounding issues of privacy and the selling of personal data.

Privacy concerns

Several popular social media websites have already been embroiled in rows with legislators and drawn criticism from users over what they do with information posted on these platforms. Facebook and Twitter in particular have angered many with terms and conditions that effectively hand over copyright of images posted on these social networks [Telegraph].

It is easy to suggest that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that the old adage Caveat emptor, Latin for "Let the buyer beware", applies just as much in the use of such websites as the buying of physical products. However, when confronted by legalese running into more than 14,000 words in the case of Facebook, it is hardly surprising many simply hand over their rights to such companies.

This site attempts to simplify the process of informing Internet users about such pitfalls, summarising the good and bad terms in the extensive conditions put before users. Disturbingly many sites do not allow a user to entirely delete their account, and even where a user can deactivate or delete an account information may still be retained and used by the service in some cases.

Regaining control

Much comes down to control. As well as how users entrust an element of control to service providers, parents are also beginning to look at the way they control access to the Internet. Some tech savvy parents have implemented controls on their wireless router, programming it to switch on or off at certain times. With mobile data plans such intervention is of course somewhat fraught.

Some have gone further after becoming so frustrated with the way technology was interfering with family life. Susan Maushart decided to cut off her whole family from the Internet, banning mobile phones, TV and other tech inside the home. She wrote about her experiences and published a book entitled Winter of Our Disconnect.

The plus side was that her son took up the saxophone which had sat in a cupboard gathering dust for nearly two years, books and games were dusted off and the family interacted in a way they had not done for years.

Technology, and its use, can be a double edged coin. There are negative sides. Social media can take over people's lives. Many are guilty of plonking themselves of watching too much TV rather than getting out and meeting people, talking to each other. Even the use of mobile phones has become increasingly faceless as people prefer to send a text instead of actually making a phone call.

Advantages & disadvantages

There are advantages too. The Internet is a massive resource of information. One can learn almost anything through the online resources available. From Wikipedia to Open University courses, from BBC documentaries to educational YouTube videos, there is a varied and informative plethora of media.

Sadly many people let the Internet and technology control them rather than the other way round. Some studies appear to show that the benefits of technology outweigh the risks and that children without access to the Internet felt disadvantaged. Chris Davies of Oxford University says that a three year study indicated that there was no direct evidence to back up claims that students were not unnecessarily distracted by social media and other technology.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee's tweet to the world at the Olympics opening ceremony was a reminder that social networking is now a key part of our national culture. "This is for everyone" Berners-Lee posted, referring to his invention of the World Wide Web. The irony was, it is not quite everyone who has access. The Web is far from global, given many countries censor and block the Internet. Many do not have free access due to cost or geographical location. And for those with access there is a danger that we may become less connected to each other.

In the words of political philosopher Guy Debord, "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." see: The Society of the Spectacle

tvnewswatch, London. UK

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