Studies have revealed that the average online user spends up to two hours a day on social media platforms — the equivalent of 5 years and 4 months in one’s average lifetime. Reports in 2019 also suggest that those between the ages of 12 and 15 spend approximately 20.5 hours online, with almost 70% of said users actively engaged with social media accounts.
Amidst the rise of popular apps such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, our next generation of online users will likely have never known a world without social media — making them the age group that is by far most vulnerable to the unintended consequences that come with extreme social media use. Amongst these consequences are mounting privacy issues and ethical concerns surrounding mental health and online addiction.
As we witness an even steeper increase in digital activity following the COVID-19 pandemic, now may be the best time to explore and raise questions about the deeper impact that social media and social advertising may have on the next generation.
What makes social media platforms a go-to for advertisers?
According to studies conducted by Global Web Index in 2019, the share of those who use social media platforms to search and find products to purchase increased by seven percentage points in just a span of three years. That’s an estimated 31% of online users.
This goes to show that social media no longer just functions as a vehicle for shared photos, messaging or profile-building. Studies suggest that social media has also become a space where users want to see brands or products suggested in their news feeds. An estimated 4 in 10 online users follow their favourite brands or products on their social media accounts, thereby resulting in them being less likely to find targeted ads about similar products or brands intrusive or unwelcome.
Combine these numbers with young users’ propensity for heavy social media usage, and you have the framework for an extremely successful targeting strategy. On a global scale, ads placed on social media platforms rank as the fourth most popular source of brand discovery, with 28% of online users claiming that targeted ads have been effective in bringing new products or services to their attention.
In short, social advertising is an incredibly convenient tool for online consumers. Those looking to stay updated on their favourite brands via their social media accounts no longer need to look elsewhere to increase their product knowledge. Thanks to personalised ads, social media platforms are continually functioning more like one-stop shops.
But what price are users really paying in favour of a more streamlined path to purchase?
What has social advertising put at stake?
Throughout the course of history, we have seen numerous technological inventions transform our behavioural patterns, our ways of thinking and our accessibility options.
The Industrial Revolution, for example, paved the way for increased means of production, greater distribution of wealth and an overall enhanced quality of life. However, this wave of innovation also pulled in its fair share of unintended consequences — such as concerns surrounding workplace safety, health and child labour laws.
In similar fashion, the digitisation of our lives and our marketplaces has also come with consequences — the most glaring of these being the ultimate loss of our privacy and the rise of surveillance capitalism.
Back in 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shocked the world when he declared his belief that “privacy was no longer a social norm”. Ten years later, it should come as no surprise that users are unwittingly trading their right to privacy for what they may perceive as a more enhanced online experience.
What is surveillance capitalism?
Surveillance capitalism is an increasingly popular term used to describe a process where big tech companies (such as Facebook or Instagram) surveil your online activity, collect your personal data and then sell this information to companies that will use it to try to target you with personalised advertisements in your social media feeds.
In the 21st century, we have witnessed our economy migrate from mass production lines and become much more dependent on knowledge and online data. Surveillance capitalism has taken this adjustment one step further by allowing companies to extrapolate any online data that is shaped by human behaviour and then use it for profit.
How does surveillance capitalism benefit online advertising?
Have you ever found yourself searching for a desired product, only to see an ad for a similar object crop up as you scroll through your Facebook feed? That’s surveillance capitalism at work. You can bet that your location, search history, private messages, online purchases and “likes” are being monitored and fed to machine learning algorithms by surveillance capitalists. Think Metropolis, but without the daunting visuals.
As a result, your online persona has, in essence, become a product itself. It’s the “raw material” that’s sold to advertisers to help them make the best possible predictions about what will generate the highest profit. The more they are able to extract your behavioural data and feed the algorithms, the more this enables them to create better targeted ads that you’ll enjoy seeing on your news feeds.
As every online search, “liked” photo or linked message helps paint a better picture of what our behavioural trends are, machine learning algorithms become better at making predictions when they have more insight on what we’re most likely to click on, “like” or search.
Of course, this means that the longer we spend on our social media platforms, the more we’ll keep seeing the targeted advertisements and the more we’ll ultimately continue feeding the machine.
The deeper ethical impact of social media
You’re probably wondering: since when were you asked for your consent to sell your data? Or why weren’t you notified that your behavioural data was up for sale?
The answer is as likely as bad as it sounds. Surveillance capitalists have taken the reins of our private online activity and claimed it as their own, turning it into their own proprietary knowledge for capitalist gain.
The result? We give up our fundamental rights to personal privacy, free speech and legal boundaries for “free access” to applications. And as we stress the need for a society that better emphasizes the importance of informed consent for the next generation, companies may not be doing the best job of exemplifying this model in the digital domain.
This poses the final question: should companies be allowed to manipulate entire generations to be addicted to social media, when so much evidence about its negative mental health implications is currently available? How can we better address the ethics behind this act, and how can companies better position themselves to approach future advertising campaigns more ethically?
Alternative, ethical solutions for advertisers
One recently proposed solution is for companies to invest in their own data platform and analytics, allowing them to “move away from bombarding users with high frequency ads”. Procter & Gamble is one such example of a company that is choosing to follow this approach.
Major brands such as Barclays, HSBC, American Express and even the UK government have also recently addressed the ethics of non-transparent actions, vowing to review their media arrangements.
This summer, in an effort to pressure Facebook into cracking down on hate speech and misinformation, a collective of advertisers also made the decision to boycott advertising on the social media mega-giant. Several large companies jumped in on this effort — including Vans, Adidas, Coca Cola, Starbucks, Levi’s, Ford and a range of smaller-scale businesses.
In all, it is critical for brands to become more aware of their role in addressing the overall ethics of social advertising and surveillance capitalism on future generations. Is it morally right for companies to reap rewards by encouraging the next generation of consumers to put their mental health or well-being on the line? We’re going to go with “no”.
It may be a good idea for brands to also consider that a public rejection of misinformation in the digital age may be a great way for them to generate positive publicity, as well as appeal to a future audience of more socially-conscious consumers.
As we prepare for future generations to be more engrossed with technology, we must further our conversations about the ethical impacts of social media engagements. The technology we design, develop and use should reflect our values as a society. This starts by being informed about where our data is going and remembering our right to have a say in this matter — regardless of whether our behaviours are documented on or off-screen.