Downsides and Risks
1. Digital media can be used by communities with harmful intentions to spread propaganda and to mobilize followers
Digital media offers opportunities to spread information and organize action for good causes, but can also be used to disseminate maleficent content and propaganda, and be used, for example, by extremist groups to recruit and mobilize followers. Young adults and children are vulnerable, especially if they lack a stable social support network.
Many platforms such as Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter constantly update their terms of service and community standards to disapprove or forbid “threats of violence”, “violent or gory content”, “terrorist activity” or “organized criminal activity”.88 Numerous social media training sessions have been held on counter speech and the number of NGOs and community and student groups that promote positive speech against extremism have increased.89However, strong and consistent global internet governance is yet to be implemented in a common effort by all digital media stakeholders.
As citizens use social media for political discussions, questions arise about which statements are appropriate within a framework of global norms and values, and which should be prohibited. Progressive discourse in one context could be considered offensive in another. International standards can provide guidance (e.g., the United Nations’ compilation of international standards for freedom of opinion and expression).90
Online freedom of expression has broad global support, shows a World Economic Forum survey in 2014 on values, beliefs and attitudes of internet users worldwide.91
Of the survey’s more than 11,000 respondents, 70% said they can express themselves freely online and almost 60% said it is okay for people to state their ideas on the internet, even if extreme. At the same time, however, more than 70% of respondents said they are very careful about what they do or say on the internet; almost 40% think that their government tries to prevent people from accessing some information on the internet.
Challenging questions remain: How free is the internet, and how free should it be to safeguard human rights? Where should the line be drawn between free speech and preventing harm, given that communication in global social networks traverses national and cultural borders with different norms and values? What roles does government, industry and civil society play in this context?
2. By selecting what information reaches which users, digital media can alter human decisions and pose risks to civil society
Far more content is available through digital media than any user could possibly sift through. Algorithms deployed by search engines, social media platforms and other industry participants filter this vast amount of information to make it manageable for consumers. People now have more tools to curate content. However, given the growing importance of digital media as a source of information about everything from social issues and politics to job opportunities, there needs to be transparency regarding how content is filtered and which content and advertisements are shown to which users. In some cases, filtering mechanisms have been shown to contain biases that can have a discriminatory effect.
For example, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the International Computer Science Institute recently conducted a series of experiments to examine how digital profiles influence the advertisements Google displays on third-party websites. They found that Google’s transparency tool, called “ads settings”, allows consumers to view and edit the interests Google has inferred about them, but does not always reflect potentially sensitive information being used to target the consumers. “Ads settings” gives information about some user profile features and provide some choice on ads, but these choices could lead to seemingly discriminatory ads. For example, they showed that Google is more likely to recommend high-level executive job postings to male rather than female job-seekers.9293
The researchers noted that browsing sites aimed at people with substance abuse problems, for example, triggered a rash of advertisements for rehabilitation programmes, but Google’s transparency page did not change.94 They concluded that the lack of transparency about how systems like Google use consumer data to influence the information to which consumers are exposed – and potentially the decisions they make – is a major concern from a societal standpoint. In a similar example, a White House report in 2014 on the impact of Big Data on human decisions and outcomes concludes, “Data analytics have the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education and the marketplace.”95
Sources of news and information in the digital age are another issue. Another Pew survey in 2015, which examines where Americans get their news, found that a majority of Millennials (61%) and half of Generation X-ers (51%) get their political news on Facebook.96 This has become a concern because separate research indicates that the majority of these users do not understand that Facebook selectively screens content.97
“‘I share therefore I am’. So over time, people actually narrow the stream of information that they share on social media. They call it the ‘spiral of silence’.”
Sherry Turkle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As social networking platforms increasingly become online intermediaries content published outside those platforms are at risk of marginalization since some platforms and content can be sponsored while others not. Critics worry that “filter bubbles” make it more likely for individuals to be exposed to content with which they already agree and less likely to be exposed to dissenting points of view. However, argues a 2014 paper by a New York University researcher, because social media creates connections across people who are outside each other’s intimate social circles, it actually helps to expose users to more heterogeneous views.98 Researchers from Stanford University observe that individuals are more likely to engage with content that contradicts their own views when it is socially endorsed.99 Indeed, the 20,000 global online news consumers surveyed by Reuters Institute for its Digital News Report 2015 said that search services and social media “help them find more diverse news and lead them to click on brands they do not normally use”.100
Of course, consumers of news have always been subject to the judgement of others via curation. In traditional media, editors and others historically have made those decisions, without much transparency or public oversight. Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, argues that algorithms can be useful antidotes to these black-box decisions. Humans build them, after all, and the good ones, according to Usher, continually refine their suggestions to provide consumers with new content beyond their main interests.101
Other concerns pertain to digital media’s impact on civic participation and inclusion. Digital media enables speedy coordination of action, but social mass movements are complex and it is difficult to create sustainable structures for action.102 A risk also exists that somewhat loose and transitory virtual communities replace more robust and enduring physical ones, and that “clicktivism” might not have as much impact as real-world action. Moreover, with information and discussion moving online, the views and needs of those without access to digital media are less represented.
3. The transformation of work brought about by digital media may increase inequality and lower productivity
Despite the productivity gains and opportunities of digital media to actually bridge economic gaps and reduce inequality, potential downsides still exist to the newly emerging work paradigm. As digital media transforms work by increasing fragmentation, and demand for various skill-sets rises and falls, the likelihood is very real of rising inequality in the near term as the global economy adjusts to these new realities.103
First, digital media and related technology may drive near-term inequality as innovations like talent platforms increase the productivity and rewards of highly skilled workers while simultaneously cutting the cost of low-skilled work. Talent could turn increasingly to platforms like Topcoder to access opportunities that offer compensation and development potential that are much greater than those offered through traditional employment. At the same time, companies might turn to platforms like Taskrabbit to access workers to perform discrete activities at the lowest possible cost. Highly skilled workers benefit from these more flexible work structures, but lower-skilled employees could be hurt in the short-term.
Case study: Uber
Uber’s car-sharing service is an example of how digital platforms can transform who does the work and how, creating both winners and losers. The creation of apps that allow more efficient connection between drivers and passengers has made it easier and cheaper for consumers to get rides where and when they need. But the new apps have also disrupted the market for skilled cab drivers. Digital tools like mapping apps put knowledge into the hands of novice drivers that previously had to be accumulated through years of experience. The ability of lower-skilled entrants to compete with highly skilled and experienced drivers effectively transfers that knowledge premium from one group of workers to the other.
Source: Adapted from Lead The Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment, Lead The Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment. Boudreau, Jesuthasan and Creelman. Wiley, 2015
Second, digital media has the potential to diminish work effectiveness and productivity. The multiple platforms and vast quantities of information and content at their fingertips may distract workers and disrupt work. In addition, as more people work remotely, valuable face-to-face time is reduced, which can weaken understanding and collaboration, and potentially hinder innovation. Finally, because digital media facilitates greater information-sharing, it has the potential to compromise intellectual property.
It remains to be seen whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative. Considering the wealth of contributing factors, it is likely that different demographics and different social levels will be influenced differently.
About two-thirds of respondents in China and Brazil to the Implications of Digital Media Survey stated that using social media enhances their work-effectiveness, but only 11% of those surveyed in the USA believe this (Table 21). In Germany and South Africa, opinions are roughly evenly split on whether social media usage reduces or improves work-effectiveness.
4. Digital media use can change social skills – online does not replace offline
For interacting with other people, online is not the same as offline. Face-to-face interaction and communication require – and hone – a finely tuned ability to read and understand others. It promotes a sense of social connection, which is essential to the give-and-take functioning of families, communities and workplaces.
Yet a growing number of people spend more time engaged with digital media than in actual conversation. Most teenagers send hundreds of texts a day and 44% never “unplug”, even while playing a sport, notes Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and director of the Initiative on Technology and Self programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With relatively little time available for actual conversation, this generation of young people struggles to listen or make eye contact or read body language.104 Of concern is whether the recent trend of taking “selfies” and posting status updates about one’s life nurtures narcissism. Studies have produced mixed findings. One study associates higher narcissism with students’ motives for using Twitter; more narcissistic students are likely to say they posted updates to attract followers and gain admiration on the site.105
One possible impact of excessive digital media consumption is changing levels of empathy in society – perhaps a result of the fewer hours that such consumption leaves for face-to-face communication. A 2010 study by researcher Sara Konrath found a 40% decline in empathy among college students over the past 30 years, with most of the decline occurring after 2000. The study specifically looked at four different types of empathy and found that the biggest drops are in empathic concern or concern for the misfortunes of others, and in perspective taking, which requires an ability to imagine other people’s points of view. 106 Support for this finding comes from a range of experiments that explore commonplace everyday situations for college students – for example, sitting together over a meal but having their phones out. In such a situation, research shows that not only does the conversation become about topics that are less personal and more generic, but the level of empathic connection among the participants also declines.
Interestingly, this finding is at odds with results of the Implications of Digital Media Survey, in which only 7% of respondents feel that digital media has had a negative impact on their empathy levels (here defined as “understanding another’s situation or feelings, and experiencing a sense of their emotional state”), while 54% think it actually has had a positive impact (Table 22). The discrepancy in findings might reflect the difference between asking people about their empathic capacity and studying their measured performance on tests. But the discrepancy might also indicate that the definition of empathy is actually being transformed, and the capacity that respondents labelled “empathy” is distinct from either empathic concern or perspective taking.
Indeed, a recent study from California State University shows a difference between real-world and virtual empathy, although they correlate.107Whether empathy is negatively affected depends on what is being done online, for example, when (non-verbal) communication is lacking, as in video gaming. But online activities can also improve time spent in face-to-face communication. However, the study did find that real-world empathy has a stronger relationship with social support. In other words, “a hug feels six times more supportive than an emoji”, as The Wall Street Journal put it in an article on the topic.108
Regarding the impact of digital media on our most important social connections, 61% of respondents to the Implications of Digital Media Survey view digital media as helpful to maintaining already existing relationships with friends, and 45% believe it is helpful in forming new ones (Table 22).
5. Digital media consumption may facilitate bullying, harassment and social defamation
Linked to the question of empathy is that of hurtful behaviours online. Digital media has reduced the potential costs, and increased the ease of engaging in behaviours that harm either others or ourselves Hate speech, “internet trolling” and cyberbullying are serious issues.
In a global YouGov survey sponsored by Vodafone, of more than 4,700 teenagers worldwide, one-half of the respondents stated that cyberbullying was worse than face-to-face bullying and 43% thought cyberbullying is now a worse problem among teenagers than drug abuse. About one-fifth of the total sample reported having been cyberbullied. Of those, 41% stated cyberbullying made them feel depressed and 18% said it had made them consider suicide. The survey also found that 40% of students who were bullied online did not tell their parents because of feelings of shame or fear.109
Recent research by the Net Children Go Mobile project found that cyberbullying is now more common than bullying in person – 12% have been bullied online versus 10% offline, according to a survey in 2013-2014 of children aged 9-16 years drawn from seven European countries.110 Of the surveyed children, 17% said they had been bothered or upset by something on the internet. Beyond cyberbullying, online risks include seeing negative content or receiving negative messages, such as hate messages, sexual content and self-harm sites.
However, it should be noted that digital media is not the “root” of cyberbullying, but more of an “instrument”. Cyberbullying is mostly related to real-world issues and personal emotional or psychological problems. Often, offline and online bullying are connected. Used in a beneficial way, digital media can enable people to express rejection of malicious behaviour and victims can find support online, e.g., with organisations like the International Bullying Prevention Association, and the European Network Against Bullying in Learning and Leisure Environments.
6. Excessive digital media consumption may increase vulnerability to addiction and harm mental and physical health
Excessive digital media consumption poses a number of risks to user health and well-being. While a higher percentage of respondents in the Implications of Digital Media Survey feel that digital media is positively, rather than negatively, affecting various aspects of their lives, they are the least positive about impacts on their physical health, stress and attention span. (Figure 14, Table 22)
Before describing all potentially negative effects on mental and physical health, it should be noted that their occurrence is largely dependent on the way digital media is being used. The internet can be an asset for individuals and healthcare practitioners, as many content services have been provided to prevent or cure health problems (for example, the UK Mental Health Foundation or the US National Institute for Health).111112
Stress has been identified as one potential health risk stemming from excessive digital media consumption. Researchers at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland studied “technostress”, which results from having more content than can be attended to without anxiety.113 They found three major phenomena most directly associated with stress:
- Overload – increased work because of the volume and variety of social media contact
- Invasion – intrusion of work into personal life, caused by personal media connections
- Uncertainty – continuous and unpredictable change in social media applications and requirements
The pressures associated with managing the sheer volume of electronic stimuli are important enough, but they are compounded by the leakage of digital media-borne content across the boundary that once separated a user’s work and personal lives. Many can no longer easily differentiate between business and personal, between time on and time off. New innovations in digital media often add to the stress from overload and invasion, as individuals struggle to master new modes and norms of connection.
Even the network-building advantages of social media can have associated risks. Being constantly updated on friends’ latest professional successes, fantastic vacations and personal triumphs may cause envy-related stress. Users may also feel pressure to carefully curate the presentation of their own lives to highlight the great birthday party but hide the impending divorce.
Ubiquitous connectivity also brings other sources of tension, including a decline in civility. Chrissy Teigen, a model, recently lashed out at online critics who posted nasty comments about her weight in response to a photo she had uploaded to Instagram: “In what other real-life situation would you walk up to someone and tell them they’re fat or gained weight?”. Electronically mediated interactions are more anonymous and often more bluntly negative than face-to-face encounters.
Another health risk from increased digital media consumption is its potential for addictive behaviour. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added “internet use disorder” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders as a condition warranting more clinical research and experience. The APA took this step in response to growing evidence that some video gamers experience symptoms similar to those felt by people with substance abuse or gambling addiction – and may be experiencing similar changes in brain chemistry related to the release of dopamine.114 The governments of China and South Korea have already deemed internet addiction a public health threat and have taken steps to combat it, including opening up treatment centres and preventing children from accessing gaming websites during certain hours.115
Research by Hyoungkoo Khang and colleagues at the University of Alabama found that the likelihood of addiction is closely related to the user’s motivation for using digital media. Their study, published in 2013, found that those who used digital media to kill time and have fun, or as tools to make a good impression on others, are more likely to develop addictions to the media used.116
The researchers noted that because of the impact of digital media on social norms “in which an individual’s social activities appear to rely primarily upon his/her knowledge and capacity to use information, communication and entertainment technology”, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to avoid spending considerable amounts of time using digital media.117 “Although individuals in society are aware of the detrimental effects of excessive reliance on digital media, a dilemma exists because one might suffer from social exclusion if she/he refuses to partake in the new social norms associated with new media devices” they concluded.118
Digital media also appears to have some association with depression, although causality is unclear. One large longitudinal study of Americans aged 14-24 years found that heavy use of the internet and video games is associated with an increase in depression. But the study from the University of Pennsylvania concluded that intensive digital media use might be a symptom of depression rather than its cause.119 The researchers found that moderate internet use, especially for acquiring information, is most strongly associated with healthy development. Two other studies that examine the relationship between social networking and depression in youth also found that the quality of social networking interactions, but not the quantity of use, is associated with depression.120
Increased digital media use also has an impact on cognition. It has been shown to lower recall rates for information people believe they can access easily online, although it also effectively extends human cognition through external resources.121 A study conducted by the Statistic Brain Research Institute in 2015 found that the average human attention span has decreased by 31% since 2000, from 12 seconds to122 A study published in 2004 found that early television exposure is associated with attention problems at age seven.123 However, it is unclear whether this is due specifically to increased use of digital media.
The use of digital media has implications for physical health as well. According to Vaughan Bell and others, as well as Kathlyn Mills, from University College London, no evidence currently exists from neuroscience studies to indicate that typical internet use harms the adolescent brain.124125126 Of concern, however, is that time spent on digital technology displaces time that could be spent on physical activity. As Bell notes, “Low levels of physical activity associated with the passive use of digital technology have been linked to obesity and diabetes”.127
Finally, increased digital media use is cutting into user downtime, which is critical to allow the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and develop a sense of self. When downtime and solitude are possible, many digital media users turn to their devices rather than risk boredom, cutting off an opportunity for restorative and creative thought.128 Children, especially, lose out cognitively and emotionally, if they are always given a screen to stimulate them. A capacity for boredom and solitude is a signal development of childhood, and central to a later capacity for relationship, as Sherry Turkle attests.129
7. Benefits of digital media for young children are limited, when used extensively and without guidelines
So far, baby bouncers and potty training devices with tablet holders still face protest by concerned parents.130 But children are being exposed to digital media at younger and younger ages. A 2015 study by a research firm, Childwise, found that 73% of British children under the age of five are using a tablet or computer compared with just 23% in 2012. By the time they are six years old, more than 40% are using a device every day.131
This can be problematic because children are the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of digital media overuse. First, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, numerous studies have indicated that excessive new media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity.132 For example, a 2011 study by Michelle Garrison and colleagues found that violent content and evening media use were associated with increased sleep problems for children aged three to five years.133
Second, it is harmful to children if interaction with parents and others is replaced by interaction with digital media. Research has shown that brain development depends on social interaction with others during a critical period in early life. Going without that early social interaction has irreversible effects that create social and cognitive impairments throughout life.134 In addition, healthy neurological development requires the engagement of all sensory systems, but heavy digital media consumption favours the visual and auditory systems over the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems, creating possibly permanent imbalances.135
Third, the overuse of digital media can delay language development. Research has shown that very young children (aged 9-18 months) do not learn language by watching educational videos without active interaction with another person.136137 Interpersonal interaction seems to be a fundamental component of language development. Interestingly, while a 2013 study similarly found that canned content delivered through digital devices was ineffective in teaching language to young children (aged 24-30 months), it also found that live interactions between a child and an adult conducted over a digital device such as a tablet or smartphone did enable the child to learn new words.138
Fourth, uncontrolled time spent on digital media often displaces time spent on academics, lowering academic achievement. Studies show that most teenagers multitask between entertainment and academic work, both inside and outside the classroom. A 2010 survey published by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost one-third of the 8-18 years age group surveyed reported watching TV, texting, listening to music or using some other medium “most of the time” that they do homework.139Such multitasking has been found to diminish students’ understanding and memory of content and to make it harder for them to transfer their learning to new contexts.140
Finally, while digital media offers children access to a huge wealth of information, not all information can be trusted. Digital media makes it easier to disseminate inaccurate as well as accurate information, and much that is online is potentially harmful to younger demographics.
This study’s research confirms a sense of unease about children’s growing exposure to, and consumption of, digital media. Among respondents to the Implications of Digital Media Survey, 71% believe that digital media can create problems for youth (Table 23). Interestingly, respondents are more concerned about the negative impacts of digital media on the 4-15 years age group – particularly the 8-11 years group – than on the under-4 years group. To the extent that this reflects respondents’ beliefs that children aged below four years do not have access to digital media, their concern about children’s exposure to digital media could be lower than warranted.
Social Media’s impact on individuals, organizations and society
Social media platforms – ranging from WeChat to Twitter – offer both opportunities and challenges in the ways people communicate and interact in various types of relationships. The Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online, a white paper by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media, examines how social media is transforming the way that humans build communities, act collectively and individually, and transform social networks into integral communication institutions.141 The report explores the use and transformation of social media by building a discussion around the current impact of different platforms, the “business” of social media, and the ethical and legal implications for stakeholders when sharing and using information online. The paper ends with a review of future trajectories for social media tools and networks, and how they have the potential to influence individuals, organizations and society.