This week’s announcement of the security flaw, a vulnerability, in the social media/music video platform TikTok, got me thinking. The vulnerability in the TikTok messaging service (https://nyti.ms/2T4zHfs) was discovered and soon patched by the software engineers at TikTok. No company wants to leave a vulnerability open to exploitation, and so risk their user’s sensitive data. After all, this could potentially cost their users time and money, and cause feelings of resentment towards TikTok (this same story can be said of every social media platform, they’ve all had security flaws over the last 10 years).
There is a great irony here of course, and you can probably see where this is going. The entire business model of TikTok - and TikToks predecessors/competitors Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat - has a vulnerability at its foundation. The vulnerability lies in human psychology. If I can make an analogy to human psychology as the operating system for the human mind and socialization, there is a security flaw in our OS that has been identified. But rather than being patched, it is being ruthlessly exploited. This flaw leaves users wide open to attacks that cost them time, money, emotional and physical wellbeing.
The twin vulnerabilities in human psychology being accurately exploited by digital platforms – app developers, social media and game platforms, hardware manufacturers – are our intense need for social approval, and feedback/reinforcement mechanisms. None of this is new thinking, Skinner famously identified reinforcement schedules as a driving mechanism for conditioning (aka habit development) as early as the 1950’s; authors, anthropologists, psychologists, marketers and a host of other professions have understood the innate desire for social approval for far longer than that. Bestselling author and Georgetown Professor Cal Newport, in his book “Digital Minimalism”, argues that what is relatively new is the willingness and ability to exploit these vulnerabilities on a mass scale. A mass scale facilitated by ubiquitous, connected, tech.
The most cited example of this exploitation, is of course, Facebook likes. Facebook likes are the genius combination of both vulnerabilities. We don’t need likes on our online posts (unless you’re an “influencer”, in which case…). But we love the feelings of satisfaction and social approval we get from them. So we keep checking, at a frequency we likely would not intentionally choose, to see how many more likes we got. Social approval, meet reinforcement schedule. A new habit is born.
The issue we at MTC have with this business model is that the developers of this technology are fully aware of the scope of these vulnerabilities, and the potential for the exploitation of them for monetary gain at the users expense. When hackers send malicious links to TikTok users it is criminal. When TikTok engineers a product to exploit users inherent human flaws, their owners and shareholders profit. When a flaw is found in the code of Snapchat, engineers race to eliminate the potential security issue. When a flaw is found in the human OS, engineers race to find ways to maximize profits from that flaw without users informed consent or intentional choice.
If you feel conflicted by this knowledge, we share those feelings. The benefits that our new technology present are undeniable, and frankly, we don’t want to have to give them up. The ability to have a voice or video conversation, for free, across the world is profound. Having access to a great camera so you can share a wonderful moment with loved ones, or a star-chart to help teach your child about the night sky, a GPS to help you make an appointment on time, these are all wonderful advances that should be providing unsullied benefits to our lives. Instead, these great innovations often feel like the worm on the hook must feel to a fish, baiting us into a situation that rapidly gets beyond our control and is certainly not with our best interests in mind.
So how do we fix these flaws, our vulnerabilities? How do we get the worm, and avoid the hook? We obviously can’t trust the platforms and companies who have built multi-billion-dollar corporations to look out for our best interests, as that would undermine the entire business model. We need to look instead to ourselves and each other. We need to reclaim the processes which have been hi-jacked, recall why these are so important to us, and focus on ways that enhance our lives. Once we have this reclamation in hand, we are then able to utilize all the tremendous benefits our technology brings us, without the harms that frequently outweigh them.
Newport recommends multiple practices, and I thoroughly recommend picking up his book to get the full explanation. Practices like - solitude (the chance to be alone with your thoughts); not clicking “like” (so using social media as a news source, not as a font of social acceptance, and thwarting the algorithm while you are at it); deliberately reclaiming rich leisure time (make the choice to do something truly enriching, not defaulting to the infinite scroll); and joining the attention resistance (reclaiming your attention for yourself, your loved ones, and your work, and away from digital platforms). Interestingly, Newport recommends starting all this with a deliberate 30 day break from technology he calls the “digital declutter”. Newport suggests taking 30 days away from all optional technology, exploring and re-engaging in activities you find enjoyable and meaningful, and reintroducing technology in a deliberate and informed way after the break.
Of course, this 30 day break filled with meaningful alternative activities and rich social interactions sounds to us a whole lot like camp. A chance for adolescents to break from optional technology, find (or rediscover) activities and behaviors that bring happiness and meaning, and then when there has been a solid reset of priorities and experience, reintroducing technology while in a positive emotional state and from a place of real understanding.
This spring, we will be sending a tech plan to all our campers to use, or not, it is fully optional. Our plan will be based in research and experience and will have one simple goal. To allow campers to use the tech-free opportunity of the camp experience to reclaim control of their relationship with technology. Ideally, this will propel them on a path to a more productive, creative, fulfilling and meaningful school year, with their precious time and attention being spent on the things that matter most.