Facebook has been all over the news this week.
On Tuesday, October 5, 2021 a whistleblower named Frances Haugen appeared before a Senate subcommittee with accusations against the social media giant Facebook. She claimed that founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook deliberately hides and dismisses research that shows its platform is harmful to adolescents, particularly girls. It’s all about making money, she says. “As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows,” stated Haugen, “hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable.”
These claims came on the heals of a multi-hour blackout of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp the previous day.
Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg dismisses Haugen’s claims and calls the coincidental Monday shutdown an unfortunate internal computer networking “interruption.” But when 3.5 billion people–half the planet, mind you–use Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp for communication purposes, the snafu can suck. People depend on social media for their work, learning, and other social interactions. Frankly, I felt the pinch by the platform being down.
Nevertheless, the whistleblower isn’t just blowing smoke. Facebook (and most of the big social media) has been around long enough for research hounds to sniff out patterns, lines of evidence and consequences of use. The emerging research is showing that social media is highly addictive.
In 2020, the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” featured ex-founders and major influencers in the creation of social media who denounced and distanced themselves from the platforms. Tristan Harris, former ethicist at Google” stated, “We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves. That is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” Former engineer at Google and Facebook Justin Rosenstein added, “When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was ‘can we spread positivity and love in the world?’ The idea that fast forward to today and teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes or it could be leading to political polarization was nowhere on our radar.”
Renown computer scientist Edward Tufte noted the obvious: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
Without a doubt, social media is driving negative social markers, particularly among our youth.
With the advent of the smart phone (tipping as a technology around 2010), the user of social media has gotten younger. The majority of kids have their first social media account (Facebook and Instagram are most popular) by age 12. It’s all downhill from there, with Tik Tok, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter rounding out adolescent social media portfolios.
As a result, after a decade of social media use by young adults, some troubling consequences are emerging.
Social media has slashed attention spans, invoked narcissism and heated negativity in teenaged users. In general, today’s adolescents are more depressed, divisive, profane, angry, bullied and suicidal than ever before. And while there are many cultural factors to influence these negative social markers, including edgier television and films, music and video games–the common denominator flows through social media. These platforms are a window to wider culture–a world that most teens are not quite ready to embrace…nor should they.
Social media is addictive, it is harmful and it is destroying the youngest members of society.
SO WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Let’s begin by clarifying the solutions that haven’t worked to date.
First, better parenting hasn’t solved the problem. Many parents themselves are addicted (and afflicted) by social media. It’s like asking an alcoholic to help his kid to stay off the bottle.
Second, in-house monitoring by social media platforms hasn’t fixed things. If anything, it’s made it worse, because the “monitoring” prefers to censor or cancel ideas and opposing views rather than correct the underlying philosophical problem. As adults, we should be able to handle “fake news” (which tends to be any information that we don’t inherently agree with). YouTube and Facebook shouldn’t be in the “fact checking” business at all, nor pull content that is deemed (by them) as “misinformation.” In America, at least, “we the people” should get that right.
Finally, busting up the monopolies of “big tech” will not solve much either, nor shutting them down. You would think we’d have learned our lesson from Prohibition in the 1920s, but here we are again. If people want to drink, they’ll find ways to drink. If they want to connect (socially) online, they will.
But we also can’t ignore the Big Tech elephant in the room.
As a rule, it’s true, social media can be addictive and harmful.
So why not treat it as any other similar substance? Why not regulate social media like we do cigarettes or alcohol or controlled substances?
What if some social media (not all) was culturally discouraged–even illegal to possess (have a working account)–before age 18? What if Facebook, Tik Tok, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram, for example, were for adults only (over 18)? It doesn’t mean adolescents can’t communicate (through texts, for example) or be socially active online, but it does eliminate the “outside the local context” reach and the various temptations toward negative consequences.
Because many adolescents (and children) use YouTube for income and financial gain, this platform could still remain available for use. However, what if YouTube placed tighter controls on what under-age accounts could post. If YouTube can prohibit certain videos (i.e. anti-vaccine) from being posted–which frankly, again, is not their call and a direct violation of the First Amendment right to free speech–then it could easily require birth date validation that locks an account to certain activity until the user turns 18.
In general, should the use of social media be a responsible privilege and a right extended to the mature? It’s a good question, but not without precedent. We already make certain activities off limits to the under-aged. You have to be 21 to enter a bar in America. You have to be 16 in most states to drive. You have to be 18 to vote. Why would an “adult-only” tag on addictive social media–namely Facebook, WhatsApp, Tik Tok, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram–be problematic?
Controlling social media like any other addictive substance, won’t necessarily stop ALL teens. Just like cigarettes and alcohol (which cannot be sold to minors) or illicit drugs, adolescents will still find a way to use social media if they want. We can’t stop foolish behavior, but we can hopefully curtail it. Nevertheless, again, if social media is as addictive as the research is showing, then we are left with little choice.
Perhaps it’s time to limit who can use certain social media platforms if we’re going to correct and improve the chances for the next generation.
Otherwise we’re just blowing smoke in the air.