Depends on whom you ask.
If you ask Instagram, which is part of Facebook, which is run by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, you will hear things like the following: Despite our posted lower age limit of 13 for the regular Instagram image-sharing service, we know a lot of kids younger than that are lying to get on it. We would prefer to create a new service designed just for pre-teenagers so we can customise it with parental controls and so on, and bring Instagram to those younger users who currently have to lie to use it.
If you ask the attorneys general of forty U. S. states, they will cite sociological studies that link social media use to depression, anxiety, and bullying in young people. Following the news in March that Instagram was contemplating this new service, the National Association of Attorneys General got together and issued a letter in May to Mark Zuckerberg asking him not to do this thing. That’s as far as the letter went — they didn’t say what they’d do if he went ahead and did it anyway. But the implication is clear that lawsuits might be in the offing if the proposed new service causes problems in its targeted age group.
Way back in the dark ages of social media, shortly after September 11, 2001, I wrote an article speculating on the ethical implications of electronic communication. The immediate context was the fact that during the Twin Towers attack that day, the radio systems that first responders were relying on to coordinate their uniquely challenging rescue efforts largely broke down. At the time, I concluded that, other things being equal, more communication among human beings was better than less. But back then, Facebook wasn’t even a gleam in Zuckerberg’s eye, and hardly anybody imagined the huge economic and social forces that growth of social media would lead to.
Some questions are like diamond drills. If you keep asking them they just keep going deeper and deeper and sometimes reveal unexpected things. One of these questions is the innocent-sounding, “What’s the point?”
If you ask Mark Zuckerberg that question about Instagram for those under 13, I think the bottom-line answer must be to make more money. There is a thin veneer of public service that social media likes to coat their enterprises with. And there is justification for this veneer: billions of people (yes, billions) successfully use social media for largely innocent activities such as keeping in touch with relatives and friends. Because the vast majority of users do not pay for the service, Facebook and Instagram have to manipulate things so that their advertisers reach their intended audiences. The user is the product and the advertiser is the customer.
Right off the bat, that step has strayed into a swamp that philosopher Immanuel Kant warned us against. I am told that he said in effect, “Don’t treat people as means, but only as ends.” That is to say, using people solely as a means to something else is wrong.
Of course, every business enterprise in the world could be accused of such a thing, and so providers of goods and services should not treat their customers only as a means to make money. And if Instagram goes ahead with its plans for the under-13 crowd, I’m sure they will make efforts to protect their users against some of the worst abuses that social media can be used for: stalking, sexual predation, bullying, and other criminal activity. But if they don’t make money at it, they will have failed, because they are not a charity — they are a publicly-owned profit-making organisation, and the point of such organisations is to make money.
There is a reason that Instagram currently says its users must be 13 or over. Historically, at least within the last century or so, children were regarded as especially worthy of protection and special safeguards. Just to give you an antiquated example, I attended the Fort Worth Independent School District from 1960 to 1972. At that time, both teachers and parents made strenuous efforts to keep commercial enterprises and advertising out of public schools. The only exception to this that I can recall is that in grade school, the teachers offered to let us practice saving money, and gave us little envelopes with the name of the First National Bank of Fort Worth printed on them. That’s it: no TV, no sponsored commercial films, no nothing.
I am told that things are different now. History may judge our time as a peculiarly child-hostile period. The ideal of a child being raised to adulthood by his two biological parents — one male, one female — is receding into the past as other situations arise that are more convenient to the parents, maybe, but shortchange the kids. And I need not mention abortion as the ultimate child-hostile policy, but I did anyway. In an era of declining birthrates, more people than ever are asking “What’s the point?” about the whole business of childbearing in the first place, and coming up with a negative answer.
For a time, advertising on children’s TV shows was also controversial, but that battle has receded into the distant past as TV itself turns into a bewildering array of shape-melding forms that anybody can access, even the baby in the nursery. Short of getting laws passed that prohibit Instagram for kids under 13, even the state attorneys general can’t do much more than write letters saying that they won’t be happy if Instagram goes ahead with its plans.
Rather than further erode the influence and authority of parents over their children by taking even more of the child’s attention away from the live human beings who care for them and using them as a means of profit as well as providing a dubious service that so far they have done fine without, I hope that Zuckerberg listens to the attorneys general and declares the under-13 set sacrosanct from further intrusions by his firm. But to do so would indicate that he is getting a different answer to the question of what the point is than he’s gotten up to now. And so far, he’s given no sign of doing so.
This article has been republished with permission from Engineering Ethics.