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Social media makes breakups worse, study says
Is there a way for more human-centered algorithms to prevent potentially triggering interactions on social media?
- According to a 2017 study, 71% of people reported feeling better (rediscovery of self and positive emotions) about 11 weeks after a breakup. But social media complicates this healing process.
- Even if you "unfriend", block, or unfollow, social media algorithms can create upsetting encounters with your ex-partner or reminders of the relationship that once was.
- Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder suggest that a "human-centered approach" to creating algorithms can help the system better understand the complex social interactions we have with people online and prevent potentially upsetting encounters.
Social media complicates the natural healing process of breakups
Social media complicates the difficult process of healing with a break up.
Photo by Antonio Guillem on Shutterstock
According to a 2017 study (which you can find in the Journal of Positive Psychology), most people are able to heal from a breakup within a span of three months after the relationship has ended.
This study examined 155 participants who had gone through breakups in the past six months - these were people who had been in relationships of various durations and consisted of people who had been broken up with as well as people who had been the one to end the relationship.
71% of people in this study described feeling better (reporting rediscovery of self and more positive emotions) around 11 weeks after the relationship had ended.
"Offline, breakups can range from awkward to awful, inspiring a gamut of emotions for former partners and people in their networks. Typically these feelings fade with time and distance as ex-partners grow apart emotionally and physically..."
Social media complicates this process, according to a 2019 study conducted by a team in the Department of Information Science division at the University of Colorado Boulder.
While it's obvious that social media can make grieving the end of a relationship even more difficult, many people unfriend, unfollow and even block their ex-partners to gain some sense of control and erase any reminder of their lost love.
However, according the study mentioned above, even if you unfollow, unfriend and block your ex-partner, social media platforms are very likely to serve you reminders of your relationship due to their algorithms.
Even if you “unfollow” and block, social media algorithms can make breaking up even more painful
Even when you "unfriend" or block your ex-partner, social media algorithms make it possible to see reminders of them.
Figure 1 from 2019 study on Facebook algorithms
This study investigated the unexpected encounters people face with social media content (relating to an ex romantic partner or relationship that has ended) as a direct result of that platform's curation algorithm.
Through 3 sets of interviews conducted with 19 adult Facebook account holders (within the United States), the team characterized the kinds of social media encounters participants in the study had experienced and how that experience affected their ability to heal from the breakup.
The participants of this study varied in age and sexual orientation, and the length of their romantic relationships also varied (this data can be found in Table 1 of this document):
- Participants ranged in age from 18-46 (with a median age of 30.56)
- Participants included 12 females and 7 males
- Relationship duration varied from 2 months to 15 years
- Relationship statuses (while together) varied from dating to cohabitating to married
- Sexual orientations of the participants varied from straight to bisexual to lesbian
The "time since encounter" (of the unexpected social media encounters) ranged from ongoing to over 2 years ago. Each participant of this study self-identified as having experienced an unexpected and upsetting experience with content about an ex-partner on Facebook.
According to this study, there are three places on Facebook where "upsetting algorithmic encounters" frequently happen:
- News Feed - which, according to Facebook, shows you "stories that matter most to you" through metrics based on the type of content you post and interactions you have with posts you come into contact with.
- "On this Day" or "Memories" - a place where pictures or interactions with posts are shown to you as happening "a year ago today" or "five years ago today."
- Shared Spaces and Friend Suggestions - where upsetting encounters can happen by seeing mutual friend posts where you can see a blocked person's response to a post by a friend of yours.
Who is at fault for these upsetting encounters?
In one instance, person 15 (as they are labeled in the study) indicated she had blocked her ex-husband and mutual friends they shared, as well as his family. Even so, she still encountered an upsetting "friend suggestion" on the sidebar of her Facebook screen.
"Around the time of the divorce, I was getting 'people you may know' suggestions of his [new] girlfriend's relatives, which was bizarre…"
Not only was person 15 upset with these friend recommendations, but she was also very confused: she assumed unfriending her ex-partner, as well as any mutual friends they had, would create enough "virtual distance" between her and her ex-partner that the system would no longer recommend overlapping connections between the two of them.
Across the range of these interviews, some of the participants did blame themselves for not changing their privacy settings or maintaining their social media to help avoid these encounters.
A minority of people in the study held others accountable: giving examples of "not deleting photos with the two of us in it" as blame being on their ex-partner.
However, most of the participants held the social media platform accountable.
"I clicked the Facebook app and at the top, the very top item of my News Feed is "so and so is in a relationship with someone else" and I'm like, "why are you putting that at the top of my feed?" - a quote from person 9 in the study.
The problem is clear...is the solution also clear?
Is there a solution that can allow social media algorithms to better understand complex social interactions online?
Image by Sergey Nivens on Shutterstock
The real problem with the algorithms on social media platforms, according to the study, is that these systems do not understand the (at times, quite complex) social context of the data they are processing.
The unpredictable outcomes of these algorithms can cause extremely upsetting experiences for social media users.
Going beyond the scope of breakups for a moment, we can imagine how traumatic the experience of seeing your deceased daughter in Facebook's "Year in Review" video was for Eric Meyer, who explains his experience in this article about inadvertent algorithmic cruelty: "I didn't go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for that."
"Yes, my year looked like that" explained Meyer in his emotional article, "true enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully."
This is just one instance of potentially devastating effects of social media algorithms that don't take more into account than how many "likes" a photo received or how you are connected to this person through a friend of a friend.
The solution: human-centered algorithms
The algorithm is made to simply show you "a friend of a friend" in the "mutual friends" section - not knowing that this "friend of a friend" just happens to be your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend's new partner. Or in the case of Eric Meyer, the algorithm showed his most "liked" photo, which happened to be of his daughter before her passing earlier that year.
This can create a very triggering response, as you can imagine. But is there a solution to this? The research team suggests that "human-centered approaches" to algorithms could help.
While approaching this problem in a simplistic way might prevent people from having online interactions they do value, the study suggests there are things social media algorithms can take into account that could potentially detect upsetting triggers and redesign how these encounters occur.
An example given in the study is a Facebook event where both you and your partner are attending, the algorithm could choose how (and when) to make your ex-partner's interactions with that event visible to you.
"As the work of content curation on social media continues to shift from people to algorithms, understanding how people experience what those algorithms make visible is critical to the design of human-centered systems, especially when the results are upsetting or harmful."
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Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.
- Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
- Recent glacial melting, caused by climate change, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
- While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.
People die trying to reach the top of Mt. Everest. While about 5,000 people have gotten to the top and came back down to tell the tale, 300 have not and 200 bodies remain on the mountain. Many of these bodies have been covered by snow and ice over the years, but now with glaciers melting due to climate change some of the long-hidden bodies are reportedly becoming visible again.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, told the BBC: "Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed. We have brought down dead bodies of some mountaineers who died in recent years, but the old ones that remained buried are now coming out."
The ice on Everest is melting fast, in 2016 the Nepalese Army had to be called in to drain lakes swollen with glacial-melt that threatened to flood. The Khumbu Glacier is melting so fast that ponds are forming and linking up to create small lakes. Not all the bodies that turn up are made visible by global warming though, glaciers move and snow drifts shift over time so previously hidden bodies are always at risk of coming back into view.
Why leave the bodies there at all? Why not bring people down as soon as they die?
It costs a lot of money to go get a body on the highest mountain in the world, up to $80,000 to be precise. Then there is the problem of actually doing it, since some attempts to retrieve bodies are forced by difficult conditions to abandon their efforts.
Some people, such as mountaineer Alan Arnette, argue that the bodies should be left there. He told the BBC, "Most climbers like to be left on the mountains if they died. So it would be deemed disrespectful to just remove them unless they need to be moved from the climbing route or their families want them."This doesn't stop people from wanting the bodies taken down or dealt with in other ways. David Sharp's body was moved out of sight in 2007. George Mallory's body took 75 years to find and was given an Anglican burial in 1999. Over time, the elements often move bodies away from the main routes up the mountain to more isolated areas where they remain undisturbed.
Everest’s chilling landmarks
The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.
For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him — many presuming he was the famous corpse.
A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "Rainbow Valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "Most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."
Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, the climbing partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.
Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the '90s without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irvine is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.
As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.