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From Gmail to Ask.fm to Twitter to Facebook: When tech treats us badly, why don't we just leave?

We're locked in an abusive relationship with technology. Plus: Why didn't Dead Prez make the First Lady's album cut? And, gentlemen, don't go to any stubble
  • @MsEllenEJones

How many times does the internet have to tell us it doesn't love us, before we stop crawling back for more? Last week, in a legal submission to contest a class-action lawsuit, Google told Gmail users point-blank what it has long been gently hinting: "A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information they voluntarily turn over to third parties." As Dear John letters go, it was pretty blunt.

No one should be surprised that websites, search engines and internet service providers behave this way, yet continually, we are surprised. We were aghast when Instagram said they'd flog our photos, we were dismayed when Facebook said they would charge to send messages, and we were shocked and appalled when Twitter dragged its feet over installing a "report abuse" button.

Google, Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm are all private companies which quite transparently prioritise profit over our feelings but, like naïve lovers in a doomed relationship, we hold on to the hope they will one day change.

Any romance that there used to be is now long gone. Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that regular use of Facebook predicts a decline in user well-being. It's only the latest in a series of studies linking new technologies to increased stress and unhappiness. In this week's most extreme example, the Gilbert family from Houston, Texas forswore wireless technology after their baby monitor began shouting abuse at their two-year-old daughter. The police guessed it had been hacked by malicious persons unknown, most likely based in Europe.

When technology treats us so badly, why don't we just leave? Why don't bullied teenagers stop using Ask.fm? Why don't spied-on Gmail users switch to a different mail provider? Ah, but if only it were that easy. Researchers estimate that between 5 and 10 per cent of internet users are actually addicted, with effects on the brain very similar to alcohol or drug addiction. The rest of us aren't free either. Whether we like it or not, internet access is increasingly a bar to even basic participation in modern life.

If you successfully give up crack cocaine, you can return to polite society, an outcast no more. If you successfully give up Facebook, however, you will be banished to the very fringes. It's the 21st-century equivalent of the city dweller who dreams of escaping the rat race on an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides: Possible – admirable, even – but not a realistic option for most people with social lives and the need to make a living.

There ought to be a way to avoid becoming an indentured slave to technology, without withdrawing from society altogether and perhaps there is, but those with a will to reform – the David Camerons, the mothers groups – lack the understanding. And those with the understanding – the darknet bandits, the Zuckerbergs – lack the will. If you had knowledge that conferred such untold and, as yet, largely untapped power, you'd be unlikely to want change either.

Michelle's vegetable rap

When I was at school, barely a week went by without some Michelle-Pfeiffer-in-Dangerous-Minds wannabe encouraging us to make up a rap. As I recall, these teacher-mandated ditties were mostly about the environment (this was in the Nineties, when we still believed Apocalypse could be averted), but we also did one about friendship and one about the Ancient Egyptians. So Michelle Obama will be in dubious company when she releases her educational hip hop CD Songs for a Healthier America later this year, with track titles including "Veggie Luv" and "U R What You Eat".

But before we roll our eyes and go back to carving initials into the desk lid, let's give Miss a chance. Not only has she managed to enlist the not-entirely-naff likes of Run DMC and Doug E Fresh as collaborators, but songs about healthy eating have a genuine pedigree in the genre. Dead Prez, best-known for "Hip Hop", have a song called "Be Healthy" (2000) which includes advice along the lines of "Lentil soup is mental fruit / And ginger root is good for the yout'". It also recommends daily intake of marijuana, however, which would explain why it didn't make the First Lady's album cut.

A-level photography

At exam time, photographers still struggle to find eye-catching alternatives to the media cliché of blonde of girls jumping for joy. Some suggestions:

1. Teachers in the staff room enjoying well-deserved sit down and a nice cup of tea, as reward for all their invigilating efforts.

2. The school caretaker silhouetted in an after-hours assembly hall, sweeping away discarded A-level envelopes while everyone else is living it up at the pub.

3. A student shrugging while clutching a fist of D-grades, indicating his acceptance that while academic achievement might be nice, it's only one narrow definition of success, after all.

Don't go to any stubble

In all this fawning over Jeremy Paxman's beard, does anyone spare a thought for the follically challenged? A male friend of mine who's currently doing some online dating informs me that "tall, dark and beardy" has replaced the traditional as a summary of single ladies' stated desires and anyone who doesn't meet up is cruelly overlooked.

If you can't grow the required full, luscious beard naturally, then help is at hand. According to the Institute of Trichologists, there's been a sixfold increase in the number of men opting for beard transplants. It's a gruesome-sounding procedure that involves harvesting hair from the back of the head before attaching it to the face. Why do they bother? Because they're worth it, of course.

As a member of the gender traditionally victimised by impossibly high beauty standards, it behoves me to pass on to men the wisdom that every woman arrives at sooner or later: life's far too short for that nonsense.