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The adverse impact of social media on behaviour is evident as it hinders children from acquiring vital social cues typically gained through face-to-face interactions Image Credit: Pexels | Reuters

It is a wake-up call, and it has not come a day too soon. A lawsuit by more than three dozen states in the US against Meta — which owns Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp — has finally taken the lid off an open secret, that all is not kosher when it comes to big tech.

Allegations against Meta include infringing on consumer protection laws and compromising, knowingly, the physical and mental health of children — an overwhelming percentage of them underage — through its social networks.

The list of whistle-blowers from the tech world has grown exponentially in the past few years, what makes their disclosures serious is the underlying constant, children in the firing line.

In a ‘motive is profit’ dogma, it is not surprising that algorithms are tweaked to ensnare the most vulnerable, who incidentally are also the most prolific social media users, by pushing content that triggers.

An unsealed court document alleges that Meta by design did not disable accounts of children under the age of 13 while collecting their personal information without their parents’ consent.

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Just a click away

Another leaked internal Meta document is equally damning, “content on IG triggering negative emotions among tweens and impacting their mental well-being (and) our ranking algorithms taking [them] into negative spirals & feedback loops that are hard to exit from.” If you think this theme of social networks as a trap is exaggerated, keep reading.

A former engineering director at Facebook has testified on how the thin line between online safety and ‘likes’ has been made a yawning gulf by the unwillingness of tech giants to formulate policy that could bridge the gap.

“I can safely say that Meta’s executives knew the harm that teenagers were experiencing, that there were things that they could do that are very doable and that they chose not to do them.” His recommendations to make it safer were ignored, he says among the senior executives he flagged was Mark Zuckerberg.

“They can’t be trusted with your children,” his telling statement is now being seconded by hundreds of American families who have also filed a lawsuit against Meta, Google, TikTok and Snap Inc. Among them is a 21-year-old who says her teenage years were spent in depression and suicide attempts calling social media a ‘cult’ where once in, the door locks.

It is a fallacy that social media is a playground, it is more a battleground where everything from sexting, streaming a suicide live to self-harm videos are just a click away. It produces an assembly line production of children who face similar curveballs, without a filter.

OPN children mobile social
YouTube features cartoons alongside self-harm tutorials while Roblox promotes gambling Image Credit: Pexels

Engage or perish

Unfortunately, it is also where tweens — the new teens — come out to play. Age here is just a number, a number that big tech has done little to crack down on. Putting a pause on an Instagram platform for children under the age of 13 doesn’t mean much, Meta has millions of underage subscribers.

British regulator Ofcom says 28% of 10-year- olds, 46% of 11-year- olds and a whopping 51% of 12-year-olds are users. This when sleep deprivation — a teen told me how she had slept just three hours in six days — and addiction, that comes from bringing on Instagram or Snapchat are all collateral damage.

A whistle-blower, Frances Haugen came out armed with thousands of pages of internal research known as ‘Facebook Papers’ in 2021, the report flagged Instagram for negatively impacting mental health, “32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Haugen testified that no safeguards supported the investigation despite the platform being ‘toxic’ for many teenagers.

Although against its very basic nature, what happens on ‘socials’ is not always overt, anonymity without accountability has allowed cyber cravings a free fall, the rules of engagement are, engage or perish.

Accountability and responsibility

Psychologist and award-winning author Erik Eriskson coined the term ‘identity crisis,’ saying “adolescents need freedom to choose, but not so much freedom that they cannot, in fact, make a choice.” It is this unrestrained and unregulated freedom that the likes of Meta, Snapchat and TikTok are complicit in.

It is the wild west, cartoons on YouTube are interspersed with tutorials on self-harm, popular games like Roblox encourage gambling and in just three months of 2019, Facebook reportedly removed 11.6 million pieces of content that involved child nudity and exploitation, an indicator if ever that it can act if there is intent.

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal where Meta agreed to pay $725 million to settle a lawsuit for allowing third parties to access personal data of Facebook users to allegations against Facebook and Google for not doing enough to stop misinformation during the Capitol Hill riots, controversies surrounding tech companies are as giant as their stature.

Without law enforcement and legislation, bad actors using AI experts warn will strike next and families can no longer afford to shrug at digital literacy. Accountability and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, underage children with parental permission on social media which makes Minecraft look like a walk in the park, is baffling.

As primary stakeholders, the adults need only remember Molly Russell, the 14-year -old from London who took her own life. Her father described her web history as ‘the bleakest of the worlds’ saying it shocked him to see such ‘dark, graphic and harmful material’ readily available to children online.

A socially awkward, withdrawn teen is a red flag but healthy tech habits at home have precedents. In the age of consumerism, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs sold us technology but shielded their own children from it.

Was this the biggest con in contemporary history?