The Ethics of Artifacts

Chapter 15 Case Study: Are Screens and Social Media Mediating Our Face-to-Face Social Interactions Too?

As more information emerges about the effects of screen time, whether in the form of TV, phones, Ipads and tablets, or more traditional laptops and nonmobile computers, many parents have become concerned about the effects on their children’s brains. Victoria Dunckley, writing for Psychology Today, explains that the phenomenon of children using screens is affecting their social lives in ways that extend beyond their time on the screens themselves. Almost everyone knew already that screens can change a teen or child’s social life simply by virtue of giving the child access to other people at great distances and enabling instantaneous communication. The ways in which social media via screens have shaped these social interactions are well-known: bullying has become easier and more difficult to escape; children can spend vastly more time communicating with their peers; children can communicate thoughts and feelings to friends instantly instead of after intervals of being away from friends, thereby losing the time to reflect upon or develop and analyze their thoughts; and children are losing the time and space by which to develop themselves apart from constant peer-monitoring. Children come to value the likes on Instagram or Facebook such that they are feeling pressure to perform before an ever-present online audience. More can be said, but suffice it to say, there is no question but that social media technology has altered the way in which young people, both children and teens, interact socially as so much of that interaction is now mediated through screens connected via Internet.

What is new is the growing realization that the screen-mediated social interactions also affect the nonscreen-mediated social interactions. Or perhaps another way to put it is that screen-mediated social interaction may indirectly mediate social interaction even in face-to-face encounters. Psychology Today explains that socially awkward teens are driven to more social interaction via the Internet, and this, in turn, makes them more socially awkward—it is a self-reinforcing cycle. Thus, children who are “socially incompetent are at a particularly high risk for developing dependence upon electronic media.” Dunckley tells us that a shy child without screens can overcome social anxiety and awkwardness whereas a socially awkward teen who “hides behind a screen” becomes more socially awkward. Social anxiety might be a normal part of childhood, but in the past, the desire for social interaction was strong enough to get children to seek out social interaction anyway and to then develop social competency. Screen time can give many of the benefits of social interaction without the risks and without developing the competency that all must develop through practice. She gives signs of screen-related social anxiety, such people “tend to make poor eye contact, seem distracted or ‘not present,’ or squirm with discomfort.”

Among those most likely to limit screen time because of its social and cognitive consequences are the very engineers in Silicon Valley who develop social media and the screens that enable it. The New York Times reports a “dark consensus” of Silicon Valley parents in the tech world who do not allow kids to have access to screens at all and reports on the economic and class disparities in screen restriction: lower-income children and the children of racial minorities spend more time on screens than affluent, and while private schools are kicking screens out of the classroom, public schools are still bringing them in.

Consider now the common sense view of artifacts, which holds that artifacts are morally neutral and inert tools that merely expand our range of choices, and the strong view, which claims that technology mediates our perceptions and acts in the world. How might the two explain the previous case about social media and social interaction? Think back to Heidegger’s claim that technology does not merely create an option but reveals and recommends a way of acting in the world. What might Heidegger say about screens and social media? Illies and Meijers make a sharp distinction between first order responsibilities to select good options and second order responsibilities of engineers to create good options; how might be applied to the previous case? What would it mean to try and conceive of teens and screens as forming “hybrid agents” in Latour’s sense? If artifacts could embody social values, what social values would screens and social media embody?

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