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Understanding The Algorithm

Algorithms: An overview

Everyone has heard of algorithms, but how many of us truly understand what's behind them? And why is it important to understand? The short answer is algorithms have the ability to shape what we believe to be true, and to influence our opinions about ourselves and others. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on social media. So we want to use this post to unmask the algorithm, and arm parents with information that they can use to support their children in managing their online lives.

Simply put, an algorithm is a series of code that provides step-by-step instruction to tell a computer system what to do. An example of this is your GPS software, an algorithm helps the software select the proper route to give you based on a series of if/then analyses (i.e. if you filter out toll roads on your route, the algorithm knows to eliminate certain routes from the choices before it pops up the suggested routes.

Algorithms in social media

Where things get dicey is when the algorithms are designed to learn your behavior online and then reinforce it. It's very deceptive if you are unaware that it's happening. How do you know and what should you look for?

Using Facebook as an example, two people in the same household (i.e. same zip code/geography) who have different political views will see completely different angles of the same story in their individual Facebook feeds. If you have opened posts or watched videos from a person or group with a liberal political perspective, the Facebook algorithm will put more of that content into your feed. Conversely, if you have opened/viewed conservative leaning content, you'll see more of that in your feed.

All of this sounds like a good thing, right? Facebook learns what you like and they give you more of what you like....how can that be problematic? It becomes very problematic in certain circumstances, especially if you are an unwitting participant. This is especially important when you're talking with your children about their social media consumption.

Hook, line and sinker ("reeled in")

According to Pew Research, teens spend an average of 4 to 5 hours each day consuming social media content, and the purveyors of this content have expertly crafted a system that draws them in and makes them want more. Do you like cute puppy content? We will fill your feed with photos, videos and ads of cute puppies....you'll lose track of time because you've been sucked into the vortex of cute puppies, and you'll want to see more and more cute puppies...and every extra minute you spend on our platform we will be making money.

Cute puppies aside, there is a much darker side of social media that should be on the radar of all parents. What happens when a classmate commits suicide? A curious teen may be on their social media looking for stories, posts and content about the classmate. They might click on unrelated posts about suicide during their search and that will "hook" the algorithm. Suddenly, the algorithm is serving up all kinds of suggested content about suicidal ideation, videos of kids teaching other kids the different ways to commit suicide, hate speech designed to provoke a suicidal child into taking their life. And the more the child clicks, the more it feeds the algorithm.

Suicide is just one alarming example of this. Girls are being served a million different strategies to lose weight, look better, stave off wrinkles at age 12. Boys are being served high risk activities, fight clubs, pornography, and worse. Our children are being manipulated by marketing masterminds who use machine learning to guarantee an outcome....we need to teach our kids to be smarter than the algorithm.

Outsmarting the algorithm

The first way to help kids outsmart the algorithm is to draw their attention to it and teach them how it works. Next, give them action steps so they can stay in control:

  1. Suggested content seems really convenient, but each click on suggested content feeds the algorithm. If you see something in the suggested content that you want to view, do a separate search for it...don't click the link the algorithm is providing you.
  2. Be aware of what's coming across your feed. Does it seem like all your friends are posting about chocolate ice cream? It may only be a handful of your friends, but if you liked or shared one post about the chocolate ice cream, the algorithm learned that and is now putting all of the posts about chocolate ice cream front and center on your feed....the posts from your other friends are not being shown to you because the algorithm knows you like chocolate ice cream. Oh, and by the way, you're also seeing ads trying to sell you chocolate ice cream! Counteract this by being deliberate about going onto the accounts of friends who aren't appearing in your feed and interacting with their content. Be careful about liking/sharing too many of the same subject posts (if you put a like on three or four photos of different friends at the beach....guess what is going to be front and center on your feed from now on?)
  3. Don't engage with content that is violent, political, pornographic, cruel, etc. That's like opening Pandora's box...
  4. Force a reset! Take a couple weeks off from your social media; delete your search history; start liking and sharing so many different things that the algorithm can't find a pattern to your behavior.
  5. Use the "stop showing this" feature on some social media platforms. Look for an X, a "..." dropdown, etc. in the top right corner of a post and select the option to stop seeing similar content. This will feed the algorithm in a different direction and you should see a reduction in similar content on your feed.
  6. Be selective about pages / influencers you follow. They are ad driven, and you'll start seeing suggestions to follow similar pages / people in your feed. You can view public content without following a page or a person!

Bottom Line

There will be no way to legislate internet safety; the system is set up to allow for loophole after loophole. Teaching our kids to be smart about their online activity, and working alongside them instead of against them is the best course of action. Want more? Schedule our Revved Up Kids #SocialSavvy for Parents seminar for a group of your friends!

Questions? Contact us today!