I have to be careful about how I write today’s column. I do not want to betray any trusts. But on the other hand, a topic that up to now has been an abstraction for me has become personal. A statistic has turned into someone I know by only two degrees of separation. To protect anonymity, I have changed names and some details of what I will write here. But I assure you that what I am going to write is based on facts as personally told to me yesterday by someone I will call Holly, who is a twelve-year-old girl.
Facebook, which has now renamed itself Meta, has been in the news a lot lately, and in this column as well, because of revelations by a whistleblower named Frances Haugen. Haugen is a former Facebook employee who has made thousands of pages of internal company documents public, and has testified to Congress that Facebook’s own research showed how harmful Instagram and other Facebook services are to teenagers (girls especially) at the same time that Facebook’s CEO (and owner of 55 percent of Facebook’s voting stock) Mark Zuckerberg was saying that his firm did not have such data.
The blowback from articles in the Wall Street Journal and other outlets detailing the hypocritical actions of Zuckerberg and his company have been so severe that the firm dropped plans it had announced to develop a new service for preteens called Instagram Kids.
A recent article on the Mind Matters website described these problems and quoted results of a 2017 survey by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement that showed, among other damning evidence, that the average age at which a child creates an Instagram account is 10, even though the software says you must be at least 13 to join. Among users aged 14 to 24, all but one of the social-media platforms surveyed showed a negative score for well-being.
With all this as a background, let me introduce Holly. My wife and I have known her slightly for at least a couple of years, and when she was ten she invited us to see her elementary school’s production of Peter Pan, which for an older couple with no children was quite a treat. Although she has since moved to a nearby town, she has the opportunity to visit us now and then, and yesterday was one of those visits.
Holly is one of those girls who will rattle on about whatever she’s doing if you just stand there and look interested, so my wife and I invited her in and we listened to what she had to say about what she’d been doing since we saw her almost a year ago. She talked about horses, a vacation trip her family took back East, and then school. She attends school in a medium-size town that has a reputation for old-fashioned conservative family values, and if something bad is happening there, it’s probably happening everywhere else too.
She had her smartphone with her, of course, and as she took it out she said her parents have put some controls on it to limit her social media use. While I cannot recall her exact words, the following is substantially what she said next, when we asked her how things have gone at school with Covid-19.
“Oh, it’s been bad. One of my friends committed suicide over the summer. They were bullying her and it just got so bad she couldn’t take it anymore. That’s why I don’t mind my folks doing what they did to my phone.”
After Holly left and I had a chance to think about the enormity of what she told me, it began to sink in that here was a 12-year-old girl having to deal with the suicide of a personal friend of hers, caused at least in part by the baleful influence of social media.
I don’t know anything about this incident other than what Holly told me. Scientists would call this “anecdotal evidence” and dismiss it as useless for analytical purposes.
But it brings home the diabolical influence of social media on children in a way that no amount of statistics or studies have done for me. Somewhere there are parents of the sixth-grader who committed suicide who will never see their daughter reach adulthood, get married, or have children of her own.
And during the girl’s lifetime, because she was one of the 22 million users of Instagram or whatever social media platform contributed to her death, she enriched Mark Zuckerberg personally by some amount of dollars he could charge for ads on her phone. I hope he enjoys them now, because he won’t get a chance to enjoy them where he’s going.
Holly, at the tender age of 12, already seems to have a realistic sense of how dangerous social media can be. And, Lord willing, this sense will preserve her from the hazards of using Facebook products when one is a teenage girl. But she has all of her teenage years to negotiate ahead of her, and she is not out of the social media woods yet.
We live in an age that is hostile to children and teenagers in many ways. If a child manages to survive the first nine months of its existence in the womb without being aborted, as about 600,000 children are each year in the US, she or he becomes a kind of hobby that our economy tolerates but does not encourage—a “lifestyle choice” that burdens the otherwise ideal worker with expenses and obligations that distract him or her from being totally devoted to the job and to consumption of products and services such as Facebook.
Upon entering school, an institution that was formerly safeguarded from commercial exploitation back in the 1960s when I experienced it, the child becomes the target of 24/7 ads from streaming services, the various entertainment platforms such as video games, and eventually from smartphones.
Arrayed against each individual child is the Big Tech oligopoly of world-class expertise that extracts the last drop of attention with manipulative artificial-intelligence-enhanced algorithms that do things no ordinary human being can understand, algorithms that can intensify social interactions into a tornado of abuse that makes death at one’s own hand look like the only alternative.
We prayed with Holly before she left, for protection from the many dangers that life as a girl in America presents today. God is more powerful that Mark Zuckerberg. But Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to think so.
This article has been republished with permission from the author’s Engineering Ethics blog.