Digital Ethics & Ethical Issues in Technology

Digital Ethics

Digital ethics continue to be a focus in 2022, with technology and software steadily becoming “the fabric of society”. Digital ethics have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the ongoing demand for digital services.

We now spend an average 5 hours a day on our devices, from scrolling on our social media channels, making tik tok videos, online shopping and managing our finances.

Social media apps in particular, have come under huge criticism in recent times, with The Wall Street Journal investigating in 2021, Facebook’s own admission and in depth research that Instagram is Toxic For Teen Girls

The digital expectations of Gen Z are higher than ever before with some of the cohort only ever knowing the world shaped by technology. 

There are 68 million Generation Z members in the US, and their buying power is estimated at $144 billion. In addition to this it is reported that 31% of Gen Z feel uncomfortable if they are without their phones for 30 minutes or less, so it’s no wonder large corporations are trying their best to cash in on “The attention economy”

With the amount of apps available the competition for our attention is fierce with businesses and developers constantly updating features to keep us engaged for as long as possible. 

There are now however a huge amount of ethical issues when it comes to the tech we are using in our day to day lives which has proven to have a detrimental effect on our safety, security and mental health.

Digital Ethics

Digital Ethics – Addictive design

Casinos are a great example of addictive design; the dark mood lighting and windowless establishments with no clocks to differentiate between night and day. These places have all been designed with one purpose in mind – to keep the player focussed on spending money at the table.

In app development, there is a fine line between a good UI/UX and one that becomes so addictive it becomes detrimental to someone’s health. Symptoms of depression are twice as likely to appear in teens who spend more than 5 hours a day on their smartphones

Some addictive design techniques that keep users coming back for more are;

The wavy dots in messenger apps – this keeps the user in a state of anticipation waiting and wondering what the other user is going to write and therefore inside the app longer.

Push notifications – the ultimate digital distraction. Who is guilty of picking up their phone immediately after that little red dot appears?

According to business of apps Mobile push notifications are the most important channel for engagement for 61% of businesses

The refresh button – the instant gratification that comes from hitting the refresh button and being rewarded with a juicy new feed of stories and pictures is likened to the addictive nature of slot machines.  

Likes – the craving for social validation comes in the form of likes. How many likes did I get for my selfie at the gym, who’s interested in what I ate for breakfast? How popular am I?

A University of Cambridge study showed that after 300 likes, Facebook will know you better than your spouse!

Digital Ethics – Deceptive Design (also known as Dark Patterns)

A dark pattern is a term which was originally coined by Harry Brignull, a London based UI/UX designer. “A dark pattern is a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things that are not in their interest and is usually at their expense”

The roach motel is a dark pattern that makes it hard for a user to leave once inside the app or a website. Another example is designing an app deliberately making it difficult to opt out of something. 

Despite there not being a lot of regulation around app design and development, in March 2021 California actually passed a bill called the Consumer Privacy Act, prohibiting the use of dark patterns in the UI. 

Digital Ethics – Unethical practices 

Unethical practices can come in the form of automatically starting a subscription without reminding users that their free trial is about to expire. 

But more serious practices include spreading misinformation and fake news about competitors in order to gain business or even win an election. A recent study by 3 MIT scholars has found that false news spreads quicker on twitter than real news does

One of the biggest culprits of spreading fake news and disinformation was Donald Trump (who is now banned from Twitter) During his time in office Donald Trump Tweeted 36 election related falsehoods. These then received 22.6 million likes and 3.9 million retweets!

Fake news and misinformation can have a significant and harmful impact on individuals and the community. There have been some reports and studies that suggest that people with lower cognitive abilities are more susceptible to accepting “fake news”

Digital Ethics

Digital Ethics – Data Misuse

Now here’s one we all know, big tech companies want our data! Tech giants such as Facebook and Google are well known for making unethical decisions. Selling our data is one of them. 

The big tech companies all have their own third party sharing policies however The best company for your privacy is Apple

Companies want our names, phone numbers, emails, location and ip addresses. All these things enable a company to build a profile to better understand what we are interested in and our buying habits. These tech companies are then building algorithms to market to us better. 

But what happens when our data is breached and falls into the wrong hands? Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal?

Twitter, Amazon, Google and even Uber have all been involved in data misuse investigations and more recently it has been reported that Tik Tok shares your data more than any other social media app! 


Courtesy of Reuters

Digital Ethics – The Metaverse and AI

In December 2021, Bloomberg reported that the Metaverse revenue opportunity could reach $800 billion. However a recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary has uncovered some disturbing behaviour inside the 3D community which has raised already heightened safety concerns within the virtual world. 

The Metaverse is completely unregulated and reports to no government or jurisdiction and unquestionably Artificial intelligence will have a major part to play in the metaverse. But who’s in charge, That straight shooter Mark Zuckerberg?

It is well documented that there are dark AI patterns including ethnicity and gender bias. AI ultimately is based on algorithms built by people and studies have shown that the pre existing biases in society affect the way we speak and write. The written word is currently used to train and program these machines and therefore bias in AI is an ethical problem.  

Sophia the robot, famous for becoming the first robot to be granted citizenship who has also once said she would destroy humans has recently sold an NFT of her artwork for $700,000

So is this cool or is it all getting a bit dystopian?

But what about the good stuff?

All of the above makes for some depressing reading right? Well let there be said there are also some awesome tech companies out there doing the right thing and using their influence in tech to make the world a better place!

Apple has just been listed in the Ethisphere 2022 edition of most ethical tech companies. This is decided using a number of factors including company culture, environmental and social impact and reputation.

Apple is leading the way on the ethics front with the release of iOS15 which will also now ask users if they would like to receive targeted ads. Prior to this release all users were immediately opted in. This new feature is an effort to offer users the ability to take control over their apps and the way they are marketed to.

In regards to the environment and sustainability. Cisco and Microsoft are also doing great things!

Cisco’s Takeback and Reuse program allows Cisco equipment owners to return hardware that has reached end-of-use, at no cost. This equipment is then recycled and reused.

Microsoft’s 2030 zero waste goal is another initiative and commitment to the environment. They are building Microsoft Circular Centres to extend the life cycle of servers by 90% by 2025.

How can tech companies become ethical?

By making ethics a priority and part of organisational culture, tech companies can make a change. Organisations should focus on having a deeper commitment to their corporate social responsibilities.

Companies must ensure they are practising responsible AI which is designed and developed with honest and transparent intentions and without bias, with an understanding that digital wellbeing can have a tremendous impact on mental health, for employees, customers and society.   

Companies must commit to running more sustainably and reducing their carbon footprints. And offer education and training opportunities for the underprivileged within their communities.

Final Thoughts

Technology is a part of our lives whether we like it or not so it’s important to look after our own digital wellbeing, whether this be taking a break from social media or setting boundaries by limiting our time on our devices. 

We can take control by aligning ourselves with companies whose own ethics and values match our own. 

As technology advances and ethical issues in tech grow, tech giants have a responsibility to step up and keep focussed on the relationship between technology and human morality as they have the reach, power and influence that smaller businesses don’t.

The tides are turning however with people turning their back on big tech. Facebook lost around 500,000 daily users in the last three months of 2021.  Users want more genuine interactions, more privacy and less lies and scandal.

A new wave of tech startups are being founded each day, who are trailblazing a new era of tech. By embracing an ethical mindset from the beginning these smaller companies have the power to make a change and a difference