Digital Fentanyl

Over the past couple of years, lawmakers and regulators have been playing increasing lip service to the role engagement algorithms play in disrupting society -- and not just in terms of political discourse, but in terms of contributing to media addiction as well as negative side effects like depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, attention disorders, etc. -- especially among kids and teens.

So I was struck when a friend passed along a story about the city of Seattle filing a lawsuit charging Big Tech platforms including Alphabet, Meta, Snap, and TikTok parent ByteDance with undermining the mental health of its school children and their ability to learn.

It appears to be the first suit brought by a school district, and Seattle’s includes more than 100 schools representing 50,000 students.

The suit comes more than a year after former Meta employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed internal documents and processes showing that the platform’s actions were willful and part of a calculated business strategy to get people -- including kids -- to use Facebook and Instagram more in order to monetize them through advertising.

Watch for other school districts, municipalities, etc. to file similar actions, and for it to lead to a new kind of soul-searching within the ad industry, as it increasingly debates what the appropriate amount of time and attention advertising should play in people’s lives, as well as the increasing power of technology to hijack it.

Interestingly, the first time I heard that ethical question come up wasn’t about media addition or its impact on young people, per se, but in regard to the climate crisis. As part of a presentation at last summer’s Cannes Lions festival, Nestlé Media Lead Laure-Sarah Labrunie revealed small “hygienic” steps the confectioner was taking to reduce the carbon footprint of its advertising, including – potentially – getting consumers to spend less time with its ads.

Her reasoning wasn’t about media addiction and the mental health implications of it, but simple climate science: That the more time people spend on digital media, the more energy they consume and the more carbon gets emitted.

"So maybe we need to think about new KPIs and a way to measure what we are doing in media to transform our industry,” she said, which was perhaps one of the most profound statements I heard in all of 2023.

And while she wasn’t talking about media addiction, per se, it goes hand-in-hand with the climate crisis, because the more powerful the engagement algorithm, the more time people will spend using digital media, and the more carbon will be emitted.

But I think it’s worth bringing up the other unintended consequence of engagement algorithms, because they do function like a drug and produce drug-like effects and mental health disorders associated with them.

Or, as Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said when he revealed its top global security threats of 2023– including “weapons of mass disruption” including social media – “I’m not going to say it’s TikTok or it’s Twitter. I’m going to say it’s the algorithms that drive them.”

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