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The Social Dilemma: Health and Relationships

Center for Humane Technology

The readings below are from the Center for Humane Technology.

These selected readings have been identified to further our understanding of the "Ledger of Harms" that can result from human interaction with technology and social media and the impact on: How We Make Sense of the World, our Social Relationships, Physical and Mental Health, Politics and Government, Systemic Oppression, Attention and Cognition, Future Generations, and How We Treat One Another."

Physical and Mental Health

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Physical and Mental Health

Stress, loneliness, feelings of addiction, and increased risky health behavior

Why It Matters

As technology increasingly pervades our waking lives, research is showing a wide range of effects on our happiness, our self image, and our mental health.


Posting alcohol-related messages on Facebook can lead to an increase in alcoholic behavior and alcoholic identity in real life. Research analysis of several hundred college students revealed that the more they posted alcohol-related messages, the more their real life social groups tended to shift a few months later towards friends with higher alcohol use, which then in turn linked to an increase in their own levels of drinking a few months after that.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · D’Angelo, J., & Moreno, M., 2019. Cyberpsychol. Behav. Soc. Networks ↗


of 18-44 year olds feel anxious if they haven’t checked Facebook in the last 2 hours. A recent survey of over 2,000 American adults indicates a high incidence of potential warning signs of Facebook addiction, particularly among 18-44 year olds, among whom 30% feel anxious if they haven't checked it for 2 hours. In fact, many are so hooked that 31% report checking it while driving and 16% while making love.

Copy LinkPRIVATE STUDY · , 2020. Honest Data ↗

The greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume. MRI brain scans of Facebook users demonstrated a significant reduction in gray matter in the amygdala correlated with their level of addiction to Facebook. This pruning away of brain matter is similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · He, Q, Turel, O., & Bechara, A., 2017. Nature: Science Reports ↗

1 month

away from Facebook leads to a significant improvement in emotional well-being. In an experimental study of over 1,600 American adults (who normally used Facebook for up to an hour each day), deactivating Facebook accounts led to a significant increase in emotional well-being (including a reduction in loneliness and an increase in happiness), as well as a significant reduction in political polarization.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Allcott, H., Braghier, L., Eichmeyer, S., & Gentzkow, M., 2020. American Economic Review ↗

The more time you spend on Instagram, the more likely you are to suffer eating disorders such as orthorexia nervosa, (a clinical condition where sufferers obsess about ideal foods so much that they stop eating adequately, seriously endangering their health). According to research, no other social media platforms have this correlative effect. Scientists believe this is because images of food have more impact — and are remembered longer— than text, and because food images from "celebrity" Instagram users have a dramatically disproportionate influence on their followers' reactions to food. According to researchers, Instagram's algorithm recommendations allow othorexia sufferers to become trapped in an echo chamber of images which only show a distorted reality of food images and how to react to food.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Turner, P. G., & Lefevre, C. E., 2017. Eat Weight Disorders ↗

The number of "Likes" on a celebrity Instagram account can significantly change how you see yourself. An experimental study showed that when women were exposed to different celebrity Instagram images, their ratings of their own facial appearance dropped in direct proportion to the number of "likes" attached to each image they saw. Given that there are 1 billion active Instagram users, and some celebrities have more than 150 million followers, the scale of impact is vast.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Tiggemann, M., Brown, Z., & Veldhuis, J., 2018. Body Image ↗

In just 3 years, there has been a quadrupling in the number of plastic surgeons with patients undergoing cosmetic surgery for the sake of looking good on social media (from 13% in 2016 to 55% in 2019). The greatest increase is in patients under the age of 30, particularly teenagers. Doctors point to the role of social media in creating an exaggerated idea of what is normal in beauty and as a result, distorting viewers' sense of their own appearance. According to clinicians, such Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) (aka “Snapchat Dysmorphia”) is rapidly on the increase.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Rajanala, S., Maymore, M. B. C., & Vashi, N., 2018. JAMA Network: Facial Plastic Surgery ↗

Attention and Cognition

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Attention and Cognition

Loss of crucial abilities including memory and focus

Why It Matters

Technology's constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions are taking a toll on our ability to think, to focus, to solve problems, and to be present with each other.



of screen content is viewed for less than 1 minute, according to a study that tracked computer multitasking across the course of 1 day . Results indicate that most people switched between different content every 19 seconds. Biological analysis demonstrated that participants experienced a neurological "high" whenever they switched — explaining why we feel driven to keep switching and underscoring how human biology makes us vulnerable to being manipulating by attention-extractive economies.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Yeykelis, L., Cummings, J. J., & Reeves, B., 2014. J. Communication, 4(64), 167-192 ↗

Draining attention

The mere presence of your smartphone, even when it is turned off and face down, drains your attention. An experimental study of several hundred adults showed that both working memory and the ability to solve new problems were drastically reduced when their phones were turned off but present on their desks, as opposed to being in another room. Ironically, participants who said they were highly dependent on their phones showed the greatest increase in memory and fluid intelligence scores when their phones were moved to the other room. Researchers noted that smartphones act as "high-priority stimuli," unconsciously draining significant attentional resources even when we consciously ignore them.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W., 2017. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2) ↗

1 hour per day

is the amount of time most Americans spend dealing with distractions and then getting focused and back on track each day, which comes to a grand total of 5 full weeks in a year.

Copy LinkBOOK · Pang, A. S.-K., 2013. The Distraction Addiction ↗

40 seconds

is the average time we can typically focus while working on computers, before our attention is broken. As tech companies work to capture our attention in the current attention-extraction economy, our ability to focus can only become harder.

Copy LinkCONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS · Mark, G., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., & Sano, A., 2016. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems ↗

A meta-analysis of several dozen research studies indicates that higher levels of switching between different media channels is significantly linked to lower levels of both working memory and long-term memory. Given the current Extractive Attention Economy, and the increasing number of social media platforms and apps competing to capture our attention, basic human capacities — such as our memories — are increasingly under attack.

Copy LinkCONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS · Uncapher and Wagner, 2018. Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences ↗

Social Relationships

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Social Relationships

Less empathy, more confusion and misinterpretation

Why It Matters

While social networks claim to connect us, all too often they distract us from connecting with those directly in front of us, leaving many feeling both connected and socially isolated.


The mere presence of a mobile phone can disrupt the connection between two people, leading to reduced feelings of empathy, trust, and a sense of closeness. In a series of studies, researchers found that when pairs of strangers were asked to have meaningful conversations, their ability to connect emotionally was significantly reduced if a mobile phone was visible.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N., 2013. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships ↗


of parents reported that mobile devices typically interrupted the time they spent with their children 3 or more times each day; only 11% reported that mobile devices did NOT interrupt their time with their children.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · McDaniel, B., & Radesky, J., 2017. Child Development ↗

The more that someone treats an AI (such as Siri) as if it has human qualities, the more they later dehumanize actual humans, and treat them poorly.

Copy LinkCONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS · Kim, Hye-Young, 2019. Journal of Consumer Research ↗


Children under age 14 spend nearly twice as long with tech devices (3 hours and 18 minutes per day) as they do in conversation with their families (1 hour and 43 minutes per day).

Copy LinkJOURNALISM · Donnelly, L., 2019. The Telegraph ↗


of Americans report that their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their devices when they are trying to talk to them.

Copy LinkPRIVATE STUDY · Vogels, E. A., & Anderson, M., 2020. Pew Research Center ↗


of cellphone users admit to using their phones during their last social gathering (34% were checking for alerts). During social gatherings, 82% of millenials judge that it’s ok to read texts & emails, while 75% think it’s ok to send texts & emails.

Copy LinkPRIVATE STUDY · Rainie, L., & Zucker, K., 2015. Pew Research Center ↗

People who took photos to share on Facebook experienced less enjoyment and less engagement with the scene compared to those who took photos purely for their own pleasure. Closer analysis indicates that taking photos to share on social media increases a user's focus on their own self-identity and self-presentation, distracting them from connecting to the world around them.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Barasch, A., Zauberman, G., & Diehl, K., 2017. Journal of Consumer Research ↗

Parental use of mobile devices during playtime with their children can lead to significant levels of child distress. A study of 50 infant-mother pairs indicated that infants showed greater unhappiness, fewer positive emotions, and were significantly less likely to play with toys when their mothers looked at their devices for as little as 2 minutes.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Myruski, Sarah & Gulyayeva, Olga & Birk, Samantha & Perez-Edgar, Koraly & Buss, Kristin & Dennis, Tracy, 2018. Developmental Science ↗

When encountering someone with an opposing political viewpoint, people are more likely to judge them as warm and intelligent if they hear that person’s ideas spoken rather than written down. Unfortunately, many social media platforms are currently designed to focus on text, reducing the chances of genuine discussion and debate and increasing the possibility of polarization.

Copy LinkPEER-REVIEWED · Schroeder, J., Karadas, M., & Epley, N., 2017. Psychological Science ↗

We are so distracted by our phones that we often fail to see the most basic things, sometimes at great cost to ourselves and others. Security camera footage from San Francisco public transit reveals that a gunman was able to pull out his gun and openly handle it at length without anyone noticing, before he eventually shot a fellow passenger.

Copy LinkJOURNALISM · O’Connor, L., 2013. Huffington Post ↗