June 24, 2018
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New Google ad reckons with the dark side of Silicon Valley’s innovations

Dreamstime | TNS
Dreamstime | TNS
The ad touches on a fraught issue for tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple, which face a growing body of research suggesting the mental-health effects of an internet-connected life could prove more damaging than originally thought.
By Drew Harwell, Washington Post

Google debuted an ad during Sunday’s Grammy Awards that spotlights the mental-health implications of the tools that it has helped put in the hands of billions of smartphone users.

“The Picture Perfect Life,” which has been viewed more than 17 million times on Twitter and Google’s YouTube, opens with the kind of shiny, happy images that dominate social media: backyard parties, charming kids and a fashionable woman “with all the friends that’ll like her post from Friday night.”

Then the ad reveals a woman whose Google Pixel 2 smartphone bears the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and suggests, “Not every picture tells the whole story.”

The ad touches on a fraught issue for tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple, which face a growing body of research suggesting the mental-health effects of an internet-connected life could prove more damaging than originally thought.

Google’s ad touches on what mental-health experts say is the pressure of perfection as seemingly shown through the glossy photos of social-media services like Facebook’s Instagram. Recently published research, including from Facebook itself, has raised new questions about the effect of social media and screen time on users’ happiness and self-esteem.

Last month, Facebook researchers published a post saying that using the service could leave people unhappy, particularly if they spent “a lot of time passively consuming information,” such as flicking through status updates. They said Facebook is “in a unique position to connect people in distress with resources that can help.”

But beyond upbeat photos and videos, tech companies have also come under fire for helping spread offensive and sometimes haunting scenes. This month one of YouTube’s biggest stars, Logan Paul, apologized after he posted footage of a dead body that he and his band of young pranksters discovered in a Japanese forest infamous for suicides. YouTube said in a statement that the video violated its policies and added, “Suicide is not a joke, nor should it ever be a driving force for views.”

Google says the new ad was in the works before Paul’s now-deleted video. A spokesperson said it is “part of a wider set of stories that encourage people to question their lens on the world” and that other ads will be unveiled in the coming months. The ad followed a Grammy performance by the rapper Logic of his song “1-800-273-8255,” named for the suicide-prevention hotline, and came amid other Pixel 2 ads that were more celebratory and less self-conscious of modern photo culture.

Google searches for suicide methods spiked in 2017 after Netflix released “13 Reasons Why,” a high-school drama that centered on a teen’s suicide, according to research published last year by the American Medical Association. Research published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health suggested that searches and suicides are linked, adding that search propensity is a “statistically significant predictor” for the number of youth suicides.

Facebook, the 2-billion-user social network, said last year it would hire thousands of additional employees for its content-review and outreach teams after a disturbing series of live-streamed suicides, including one of a 12-year-old girl in Georgia.

In November, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote that his social-media giant had begun using artificial intelligence to help prevent suicide by, for instance, recognizing when a user is expressing thoughts about suicide or people are commenting asking if someone is OK. Within the last month, Zuckerberg wrote, the AI tools had “helped us connect with first responders quickly more than 100 times.”

Two major Apple shareholders this month called on the company to focus more on safeguards for young people using their products, citing recent studies that appeared to link phone use with feelings of addiction, anxiety or depression.

Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of the suicide-prevention nonprofit SAVE, said companies such as Facebook first contacted him a decade ago for guidance in directing people to help. He has noticed a surge in tech companies’ interest in modernizing suicide-prevention efforts, which he called “our best hope at reducing the burdens of suicide at a global scale.”

The companies’ increased attention “has been somewhat based on the need and the advancement technology has afforded us,” Reidenberg said. “Some of it has been brought on by the public outcry that these companies need to do more. And the companies have responded.”

For months , Google has tried to contact people needing help. Someone who searches for “how to commit suicide” on Google is shown a special card with the suicide-prevention hotline, a link to an online chat with mental-health counselors, and reassurance that “you’re not alone. Confidential help is available for free.” But the search also reveals the tech giant’s limits: The first page is filled with search results including a page on “how to commit suicide the right way,” as well as a 12-minute guide on YouTube.

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