Although not typically discussed by most tech founders, there are a myriad of problems that technology can create. An undeniable dark side.
It’s most notably seen in the low self-esteem rates in teenagers and young adults as they see idealized versions of peers and celebrities plastered across social media sites.
But several startup founders in the Triangle believe that tech—when deployed humanely and intentionally—can help address some of the problems caused or exacerbated by tech itself. We’ll focus today on three: Durham-based The Social Institute, Durham-based Freedom, and Raleigh’s Six Wing Studios. [Editor’s Note: We have previously featured all three at the links above.]
From 2007—when social media began to rise as a cultural phenomenon—to 2018, suicide rates among those aged 10 to 24 increased nearly 60 percent, according to the CDC. And there are strong indications that social media is at least partly responsible.
One BYU study found that from 2009 to 2019, girls who used social media for at least two to three hours per day starting around 13 and then greatly increased their use over time were at a higher clinical risk for suicide as emerging adults.
“For these people who are developing and still trying to figure out their self image, they’re constantly bombarded with images of people who are living this very idealized life,” said Fred Stutzman, who is the Founder and CEO of Freedom, which offers apps to block out Internet distractions. “And that’s just not a reality for anyone.”
When it comes to mental health, social media offers an endless game of comparison, said Laura Tierney, the CEO of The Social Institute.
“Everyone’s got something going on that they are faced with and navigating in life,” Tierney said. “And social media doesn’t always show you what they are facing behind the curtain, so it’s very easy to fall into that trap.”
The unhealthy comparisons that teens and adults often face while seeing filtered versions of others is not the only thing hiking anxiety and depression levels. The monetization model of social media companies, by design, rewards features that cause addiction and brain inflammation, said Gabe Pappalardo, the CEO and Founder of the video game startup Six Wing Studios.
“It’s all in the direction of fear—just anxiety, anxiety, anxiety,” Pappalardo said. “Unfortunately, it’s because the social media platforms run on ads, and because the metric of ads is engagement, and because the most engaging stuff is the most fear-inducing stuff. It just puts a profit incentive on driving anxiety.”
As Pappalardo said, negative political ads will always perform better from a data perspective than positive ones. News headlines have become more sensationalized, and the top-performing content are typically the posts that trigger a primal fear reaction in humans. And nothing in the social media algorithms rewards telling the truth, Pappalardo added.
For these founders, that calls for harnessing the power of tech to battle the ills it can create if misdirected or left unchecked.
Like many entrepreneurs, Tierney created her startup because she had lived the problem it attempts to solve. When she got her first smartphone as a teenager, so many adults in her life warned her of how tech and social media would destroy her generation’s health, happiness and future success. Even when she graduated from Duke University, she still felt she hadn’t received positive training on how to use social media productively.
The Social Institute, which she founded in 2016, was her answer to this longstanding question. Offering an interactive learning platform, called #WinAtSocial, The Social Institute now helps more than 100,000 students at schools across the country navigate social media positively, without the constant comparison pitfalls.
Pappalardo is another founder hoping to use tech for good. After experiencing mental health issues in his own family and losing his brother to suicide as a teenager, and then going through the stressful burnout period of graduate school, Pappalardo began a mindfulness journey. At the time, he had an array of negative habits and his anxiety and depression were sky-high, he says. He was taking ADHD medication during the day and then sleep medicine to get through the nights.
When he started using the Headspace app, it was the first time he was able to feel a break from the negative chatter of his mind. By living in a yoga ashram for four months, Pappalardo says he put himself back together.
Throughout this process, he thought to himself how he wished he could have picked up these healthy habits far earlier in life. After all, his story was sadly not unique. But establishing any kind of habit is hard, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression. So how could he help?
With Six Wing Studios, Pappalardo has launched the game “Amaru: The Self-care Virtual Pet,” which essentially operates as a gamified mindfulness and self-care curriculum.
But the impacts of social media go beyond the damage to teen mental health. It’s also seen in the lost time and productivity of scrolling through a dopamine factory like Tik Tok.
These social apps take away precious time that could be used productively—whether for focused work, or more intentional downtime and relaxation—and Freedom is a startup that arose to tackle that problem.
Before Freedom, Stutzman had spent his time researching social media for UNC’s Information Science program while simultaneously finding himself affected by the addictive nature of the media. He wrote the first version of Freedom as a graduate student to turn off the Internet for 45 minutes. It grew from that modest start into into a multi-platform startup to block distractions and enable high-quality work.
“I think when people purchase Freedom, they may be purchasing it with a goal of, ‘O.K., let’s turn off the noise,’” Stutzman said. “But the reason they use it—and the reason they enjoy it and evangelize—is because it becomes this really essential tool for achieving your goals.”
As The Social Institute, Six Wing Studios and Freedom demonstrate, there are reasons to hope tech may be able to save itself.
Solutions may lie in persuasive technology and choice architecture. One example: If tech companies recognize they’ve created devices that cause rampant insomnia, they can choose to alter their default settings so that devices are less engaging at night, Pappalardo said.
The main problem there, Pappalardo pointed out, is that these companies would be going against their own profit motive since they run on the “attention economy”—and the attention economy doesn’t sleep.
While Apple released new screen time settings to curb usage and apps like Instagram have introduced digital well-being features including being able to set your own daily time limit, Stutzman said sometimes these features cause more harm than good. They can inadvertently enable users to spend even more time on the app since the pre-set time options are seen as acceptable amounts of time to spend per day.
“Are they willing to take the hardest steps necessary to protect their audience? One of the reasons I think Freedom is controversial with them is because we actually take a very hard-line approach,” Stutzman said. “When you’re cut off, you’re cut off… They don’t want to do that.”
At Six Wing Studios, Pappalardo and his team have worked to ensure that the mini games they offer, including a potentially compulsive whack-a-mole game and a memory game, are not as addictive for users. After playing for 15 continuous minutes, users get a pop-up that will stop them from continued mindless playing.
“People take out the app and they want to play the little whack-a-mole game a little while, but they probably didn’t set out to play it for 45 minutes,” Pappalardo said. “But they can easily get sucked into it.”
If more social media companies moved to a subscription-based business model rather than one based on advertisements, Pappalardo said, they would no longer have as much incentive to constantly redirect and maintain users’ attention, which so often has negative effects.
“The problem with tech is that it’s a portal that goes two ways,” Pappalardo said. “We reach in our pocket to do whatever it is we want to do. But it is also the way that everyone else reaches through our pocket to get our attention.”
But if that business model changed, the array of negative consequences from social media might change as well.
Regulation may be one avenue to fix the widespread issues tech has brought into our lives. A tech talent shortage as a result of tech employees demanding greater design ethics may also be a driving force, according to Pappalardo.
While potentially victims of their own profit motives, there are many good people working in tech that see the darker side of it and want to stop it, he said.
“They are people who went in and thought they were creating something beautiful and realized it turned into a monster,” Pappalardo said. “And now they’re on the outside saying, ‘Hey, we really need to change this.'”
While regulation may come to fruition in a few years as more data becomes available, Stutzman is much more hopeful that the tech industry will correct itself with new solutions.
“The real change is going to come from private-market solutions,” Stutzman said. “I don’t see that as ironic. I see that as a very natural market step. If there’s a problem, the market identifies it and solves it.”
While it’s easy to point at technology as some overarching boogeyman within society, there are clear benefits to the world it has created. Social media users can connect with others, make friends and gather recommendations quickly and widely in ways they never could before. Stutzman said that for hundreds of years, people have always worried that each new invention—whether it was TV, the telephone or even books—would hurt society.
“It has invariably changed our life,” Stutzman said. “It has changed our lives in ways that we couldn’t imagine going back to before. But it’s not all positive. It’s one of these things where it’s hard to even say, is it better or worse—because it just is. We don’t have a choice as to the fact that technology is going to affect us.”
What is key, Stutzman said, is to think about the ways we can take advantage of the good parts of technology while managing the bad parts.
Pappalardo believes the biggest challenge is that while technology is evolving exponentially, humans are still evolving on an evolutionary level. Technology can’t be entirely blamed. It’s just about how humans decide to wield it as a force, whether for good or bad, at this precise moment in history.
“Any technology that’s powerful enough is indistinguishable from magic,” Pappalardo said. “The stuff we can do now, it’s stuff that would make our caveman ancestors literally burn us at the stake.”
In the end, the job is ours
One major positive step would be requiring social media education at all K-12 schools, Tierney said. While social media companies and those hoping to address the ills they’ve created are thinking up new digital well-being tools everyday, Tierney believes the people who have the most power might just very well be ourselves.
“Social media is a lifelong friend,” Tierney said. “It’s something that we use when we’re in middle school and high school, and it follows us until we’re retired. I think no matter where you are in that journey, we could be making positive decisions that support our health, our happiness, and our future success. But no one is in control of that as much as the individual.”
She added, “Companies can do all of these wonderful things. But at the end of the day, I think you’re the one who’s looking out for your interests the most.”