Ten years ago, I set up a company called Lady Geek, after a man in a phone shop tried to sell me a pink sparkly phone because I was a woman. My aim was to advise tech companies on how to make their products more suitable for women, and encourage girls into the industry. Technology to me was a great leveller — a way to make society more equal and to open up opportunity.
Now? Today I keep our family devices locked in a safe with a 12-digit access code. I’ve also started a campaign called The Truth About Tech, to raise awareness about addiction to technology and to hold Silicon Valley to account.
Technology itself may be neither good nor bad, but it’s not neutral, and it’s certainly not the mirror of society that sociologists and psychologists would have us believe. It amplifies and pushes us in directions we don’t know we’re going in. It has become about pressure, not pleasure. It’s damaging us, and it’s seriously damaging our children.
The links between social media usage and poor mental health, for example, are heartbreaking. Recent research from UCL [the University College London] showed that teenage girls who spend over three hours a day on social media are more than twice as likely to suffer depression as classmates who use it less regularly. More than a quarter of girls who spend three to five hours a day online have clinical symptoms of depression.
And yet it is so hard to escape. Consider the vast amounts of money that is spent by the big tech companies to develop algorithms — opaque pieces of code which all too often seem designed solely to keep us and our children hooked, and which can push deeply disturbing material in front of vulnerable young people.
These are the same algorithms that, a month after 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life — an act her father believes was linked to her being assailed by graphic images of self-harm on Pinterest and Instagram — enabled Pinterest to send a personalised email to Molly with self-harm images. Molly Russell’s family adored her — but even they were powerless to stop the tidal wave that eventually swamped her.
Our children are growing up in an online world, and parents alone cannot prevent the harm that technology is causing to them. Yes, we can set rules, and try and manage internet access. But social media is like crack cocaine — and our children, tech-savvy as they are, can, and will, find a way round them.
Turning off the WiFi? It doesn’t work. Banning them from having a device? In many schools, access to one is now compulsory for completing homework. Children get to 11 and they’ve got a phone — and you can’t get it off them; it’s their identity.
Last week I spoke on this topic at Davos and one mother came up to me afterwards and told me that, when she takes the phone from her teenage daughter, it’s as if she’s ripping a lung out. Roll your eyes if you like, but how would you feel, or react, if someone took your phone from you even if you’re not on social media? They are how we interact with the world now.
Social media use is even interfering with our children’s ability to do this properly. We’re bringing up a generation who are going to have very little empathy, because the time they spend in the virtual world means they can’t read verbal cues or body language. Neither can they process their own emotions properly. A device is like a modern-day dummy — it stops you processing your feelings. What kind of adults are our children going to become? How will society function if we don’t do something to stop this?
Three things need to happen so that parents are not battling this alone. First, we need to raise awareness of the horrifying facts of what social media can do to our children. Second, we need addiction ratings on social media sites and online games such as Fortnite to give the sort of transparency that we find in the food industry.
Finally, we need to force the tech companies to start taking responsibility. They need to stop talking about wanting to bring the world closer together, admit that their purpose until now has been to keep us on their platforms at all costs, and start acknowledging the damage they have caused as a result. If it takes a class-action lawsuit to get this to happen, we need to bring one now.
In the Fifties, if you went to the doctor and said you were a bit stressed, you would be prescribed cigarettes. It took lawsuits against the big tobacco companies to change the situation, and now we recoil in horror that such a thing could have happened. I believe we’re going to look back at this point in time and think the same way about social media, and what we allowed it to do to our children.
Big tech needs to own up to the harm it has caused. The algorithms we are fighting are so opaque, and so powerful, that we ordinary mortals cannot win the battle on our own.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Belinda Parmar is CEO of The Empathy Business, and founder of #TheTruthAboutTech Campaign