Can we minimize toxic social relationships with tech?

Building tech products that nurture human potential (theme #1 out of 4)

In my last post, I asked myself: how can I make the world better? My personal framework brought me to explore how to build technology that nurtures human potential, through 4 key themes. This post will dive into the first theme: minimizing toxic social relationships.

Minimize toxic social relationships. Avoid or prevent relationships that have conflict or coercion and create positive social connection.

What makes a social relationship toxic?

Humans feel happy when they have a degree of control about their lives and when their social standing is not called into question or minimized. A few specific things can make a relationship a source of stress:

  • Overt abuse (verbal or physical)
  • More subtle conflict (constant disagreements) or experiences of coercion (feeling forced to do things you don’t want to)

On the flip side, what makes a relationship positive?

Technology creates a lot of toxic relationships…

The obvious connection between technology and social relationships is to examine the power of social networking apps. The APA recently noted that Americans’ stress levels are rising as the use of being connected 24/7 rises. Especially today, social media can expose us to a lot of anger, leading to some of the sources of stress noted above.

Communicating over email or finding a partner through something like Tinder can create feelings of being transactional rather than relational. The Uber driver experience is a great example of this — literally, each ride is a transaction determined by an optimal marketplace solution.

This transactional nature of the internet has given rise to the whole underbelly where you can do mean things without consequence: cyber-bullying, revenge porn, and on and on…

But, it’s not all bad!!

It also goes without saying that the rise of social networks have connected people around the globe in a way that wasn’t possible earlier. Today, I can maintain positive relationships with my extended family in India through WhatsApp or share an authentic moment enjoying a milestone of my best friend’s baby while they are in London. That’s remarkably fulfilling.

Having close friends is impactful for personal resilience — for kids, at work, in general in life. But positivity isn’t only important in close relationships. We interact with people constantly throughout our day: service providers, colleagues, family, friends. Each of these moments (whether digitally or in-person) are an opportunity to create either a toxic or a positive “micro-relationship”. Each of these moments are an opportunity to build in positive relational interactions.

Most interestingly, artificial intelligence and machine learning applications are playing a more meaningful role in shaping our interactions… but there could be unintended consequences, for example in applications that already show racial and gender bias.

Here are five themes of relationships where products or services can encourage positivity.

Authentic personal connections:

  • Instagram and Snapchat allow me to create ways to share what I’m doing through photo and video, immediately a more authentic and at times vulnerable way of sharing my identity.
  • Social games can be a positive, fun way to build shared experiences even if we are not in-person
  • Platforms like Masterclass or other online learning communities allow me to connect with people who share my passion for cooking, singing, etc. and build more meaningful relationships based on interests.

Supportive relationships when in need / mental wellness:

  • Using AI, Facebook has developed a tool to identify signs of depression or suicide. This could alert friends or professionals to support me if warning signs are detected. Other AI tools have been shown to be more successful than doctors at diagnosing mental health.
  • Meditation apps like Headspace can help me find calm, in order to be a better person so I can be there for others.
  • Mental health coaching apps like Joyable, Lantern and TalkSpace allow me to access mental health services easily and discreetly
  • Tinder-type apps could exist to find peers/friends who are going through similar vulnerable periods in their life like parenting, losing a loved one, etc for support.
  • AI-powered assistants or chatbots could focus on sending me encouraging messages to help with character-building affirmations based on the science of authentic happiness

Positive parenting interactions:

  • Platforms that support parents with tips of how to engage children in talking about their emotions or everyday learning moments (Kinedu, ParentPowered, Vroom, ReadyRosie to name a few) could play an important role in giving parents useful information.
  • Social network apps focused on connecting parents during isolating moments — like when I have a problem with discipline or a question as a new parent — could help parents make good decisions in parenting
  • Stress management tools for parents can help manager anger and minimize harmful discipline or unsupportive parenting

Work-place relationships:

  • Slack helps create a culture of transparency and keeps teams well connected in remote work environments
  • BetterUp provides a platform for employees to access coaches, to focus on building happiness at work
  • Practices and products that promote psychological safety at work . Allowing people to feel more authentically like themselves at work can reduce stereotype threat or imposter syndrome and lead to people from underrepresented identity groups doing better. Great examples are hiring cultures like Airbnb, Google’s culture or employee groups like Black@FB. Still a lot of work to be done broadly in this area…

Service provider relationships (doctors, teachers, hotels, restaurants):

  • Honor has focused on re-designing the experience of at-home elderly care to preserve dignity for elderly.
  • Airbnb changes the way we think of the hospitality industry to make travel a human-centric experience rather than one where you interact with a large hotel chain.
  • Tele-health through video visits and text support has been growing in popularity — with video providing an important way to preserve the provider-patient relationship, maintaining eye contact in the process
  • Making the job of accessing health, transportation, food or housing more human rather than transactional are all massive areas of opportunity — you can change the paradigm both for consumers and service providers to have a more meaningful experience.

That’s my initial brain dump on the topic — I’m curious to dig into more ideas and may add to this post as they come.

Up next…

In my next post, I’ll dig into theme #2 of how to build products and services that nurture human potential: technology that promotes pro-social behavior.