Not Their Friend(ster)
On January 31, 2024, the Senate Judiciary Board held a nearly 4-hour long hearing in which it questioned a panel of social media executives about their position on the Kids Online Safety Act or KOSA for short.
First introduced in early 2022 and then reintroduced in 2023, KOSA would require social media companies to enact safeguards that would mitigate content available to minors that lead to self-harm, addictive behavior, sexually explicit material as well as “predatory, unfair, or deceptive marketing practices, or other financial harms.”
By way of enforcement, KOSA would require social media companies to allow annual, independent audits that focus on reporting risk to minors and also require adjustments to existing products, giving parents greater control over their minors’ privacy and account settings.
Not surprisingly, most of the CEOs present, like Like Mark Zuckerberg of META and Shou Chew of TikTok, were less than enthused about government regulations of their product.
The hearing turned tense when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) grilled Zuckerberg about the known harmful effects of Instagram (owned by META) on adolescents, especially girls.
Senator Hawley repeatedly pressed Zuckerberg about when (or if) he would take responsibility for the documented harm caused to children and teens by Instagram use. Stumbling to find his verbal footing, Zuckerberg kept repeating, “Senator, our job is to make sure we build industry-leading tools to, to..,” to which Sen. Hawley kept interjecting, “to make money?”
The Senator pressed the META CEO so hard that, mid-meeting, Zuckerberg stood up, turned, and apologized to families present at the hearing whose children had been victimized by sexual predators, bullies and others on Instagram. While Zuckerberg appeared visibly shaken, his blinky-eyed facial expressions were likely as sincere as that of a weeping crocodile.
We should not be fooled.
Bait and Switch
Since its very beginning, the social media industry has played a game of bait and switch with the public, promising endless rewards while relentlessly gathering our data and using it to sell us things.
Nearly a decade ago, when Zuckerberg was a smaller fish, other barkers of social media, like Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, were assuring us that thanks to their products, a brighter and better future was just around the corner.
In their 2013 book, The New Digital Age, Schmidt and Cohen predicted that social media and related technologies would soon eliminate social isolation, enable individualized, adaptable solutions to many human problems, expand our free time and allow each person to become a better educated, better connected, deeper thinker. According to Schmidt and Cohen’s rosy predictions, social media and connective technologies would enable “those living on a few dollars per day” to tap into “endless opportunities to increase their earnings.” Their work was loudly praised by the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton.
What could possibly go wrong?
Social Media Among the World’s Most Vulnerable People
In 2014, I had been doing global humanitarian work for almost five years. I had seen social media used in some out-of-the-way places, such as Maasai tribesmen texting with each other as they moved their cattle across the Simanjiro Plain in Eastern Africa, but I had not seen any social media users so fulfilled they danced around like the cast of La La Land.
I wondered, was I missing something? If social media applications like Facebook, Google Plus, and even oldies-but-goodies like MySpace were going to make life so much better for us all, why was I not seeing these results among the world’s vulnerable people?
In 2014, I had started a Ph.D. program at Regent University, and needing to write a dissertation, I decided to see if social media was as terrific for us as its purveyors said it was. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe social media was, in fact, just what we all needed to become all that we could be.
So, I devised a study. Working in Iraq during the war with ISIS, I surveyed hundreds of Christians, many of them pre-teens and teenagers, who had escaped the murderous Islamic State and were being held in refugee camps in northeastern Iraq.
Through a written survey, I asked them what they thought of social media. Could social media really make them feel “more liked” and be the tool they need to solve their most pressing problem? What they told me opened my eyes and broke my heart.
Animals in a Zoo
After subjecting thousands of data points to dozens of statistical tests, I found that although 90% of the refugees questioned used social media (Facebook was the most popular platform), there was no connection to any social media use with feeling “happy,” “valued” or “better connected.”
This puzzled me. How could young people held in a refugee camp and cut off from family and friends (at least the ones who managed to escape Iraq), not feel more connected when reaching out through Facebook? It wasn’t until I sat down, face to face, and spoke with dozens of Christian refugees about how social media made them feel that I got the answer only hinted at by the numbers.
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What they told me, in short, was that using social media made them feel devalued, even dehumanized. They frequently put up posts that showed the gravity and seriousness of their situation, and they assumed that everyone could see what was happening to them, and yet no one seemed to be doing anything about their plight. They felt, they told, like animals in a zoo.
The Purpose of Algorithms
That was 2014, and what the Christians in Iraq and millions of users all over the world did not know was what is seen and not seen on social media is governed by strings of computer code called algorithms. The sole purpose of these algorithms, which run constantly, is to find content that will make money for the social media platform and push it to the top of the feed. Poor, starving Christians in the Middle East, kind of a buzz kill — push it down. Young girls wearing almost nothing, that’s money, so pump it up.
Ten years on, we should not be surprised by studies that find many emotionally vulnerable individuals, such as teenagers and especially teenage girls, feel worse (even suicidal), not better, for using social media. The product is designed to play on our vulnerabilities, gather data and sell us stuff. It is not designed to make us feel happy, valued or liked.
Social Media is Not Your Kid’s Friend
While I generally oppose censorship, requiring regulation and monitoring of social media use by children and teens is a move long overdue. Like alcohol or drugs, the adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to the social and corporate pressures that are social media. It is unrealistic to assume otherwise.
U.S. consumer law has long ago shifted from the assumption that the buyer is solely responsible for understanding the product, and places the burden of explaining the product on the seller. This is because many products, like social media, are too complicated for the average consumer to understand, or at least understand all the risks involved with using them. Caveat venditor, “let the seller beware,” as the phrase goes in Latin, means social media companies must be transparent about why they are here and what they intend for us.
Of the many things that social media is and is not, be certain that where your kids are concerned, it is not their friend.
Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.