Digital Revolution Concerns: Kids on Facebook

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Raffi Cavoukian argues that society can optimize the benefits of the Internet in the digital revolution only by acting to reduce its shadow of social, ecological and health hazards, putting a focus on children’s developmental needs in "Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons To Reform Social Media Be4 It Re-Forms Us.".
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The medium is the problem. Shiny tech is attractive, personal and fun. Easy online access on a variety of devices is very new, very tantalizing and, with regard to young users, very worrisome.

Many know him as Raffi—a renowned singer, author children’s champion, ecology advocate and entrepreneuer, recipient of three honorary degrees and the Order of Canada. For millions of fans, Raffi’s music was the soundtrack of their childhood. These “beluga grads” now share his songs with their own kids. Raffi has been described by the Washington Post and the Toronto Star as the most popular children’s entertainer in the western world, and Canada’s all time children’s champion. Raffi is a tech enthusiast, entrepreneur, and ecology advocate. He holds three honorary degrees, is the recipient of numerous awards, and is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Club of Budapest. Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons To Reform Social Media Be4 It Re-Forms Us (Homeland Press, 2013) argues that society can optimize the benefits of the Internet only by acting to reduce its shadow of social, ecological and health hazards. Raffi puts a large focus on children’s developmental needs as a main consideration in the digital revolution, emphasizing on the concept and effect of kids on Facebook. This excerpt is taken from Part 1: Safety.

Kids on Facebook: An Unintended Audience

In 2004, the online platform started by Mark Zuckerberg and friends became Facebook, now the social media choice of an estimated 1 billion users. The irony is that Facebook doesn’t put you face to face with anyone. It’s an online way to share your life with family and friends, your virtual “friends” community and/or the world. What has caught us off guard is the millions of young users of social media under the age of 17.

Increasingly, people are questioning whether the online obsession, from Internet browsing to constant texting, is good for kids. Social media is changing family life, youth peer relations and how people experience life. Yet we don’t know the impact of such a quick and dramatic change in social norms. We have no clear evidence that this is a good thing.

We do have evidence it’s a bad thing. In the wake of a public outcry over online bullying and many predator-driven teen suicides, we’re scrambling to safeguard kids’ time online. It should never have come to this.

Furthermore, in 2011, Mark Zuckerberg said that he wanted to allow kids on Facebook aged younger than 13, the company’s current requirement for minimum user age. Incredibly, he seems to equate this with promoting education, saying, “My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.”

Equally hard to believe is the proposal by Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler to protect current Facebook users under 13 within that platform: “We would like to see Facebook create a safe space for kids to [use the site], a sanctuary, with the extra protections needed to ensure a safe, healthy, and age appropriate environment.” Quite the odd notion when Facebook instead should focus on explaining to parents and kids that the site isn’t appropriate for use by children under 13.

“‘We don’t have the proper science and social research to evaluate the potential pros and cons that social-media platforms are doing to teenagers,’ said James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a child-advocacy group based in San Francisco. ‘The idea that you would go after this segment of the audience when there are concerns about the current audience is mind boggling.’”

Safe haven on Facebook? What we used to think of as safe haven for kids was their family home. That haven is now stripped of such status by (you guessed it) Facebook and other social media platforms that allow kids’ social issues at school to relentlessly follow them home. Kids’ well being requires not social media medicine, but just the opposite.

This well-worded statement by Common Sense Media tells the plain unvarnished truth:

“With the growing concerns and pressure around Facebook’s business model, the company appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders. But here’s the most important issue: there is absolutely no proof of any meaningful social or educational value of Facebook for children under 13. Indeed, there are very legitimate concerns about privacy as well as the impact on the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children. What Facebook is proposing is similar to the strategies used by Big Tobacco in appealing to young people—try to hook kids early, build your brand, and you have a customer for life. [Italics mine]”

A June 2011 Consumer Reports “State of the Net” survey “unearthed several disturbing findings about kids on Facebook”:

• Of the 20 million minors who actively used Facebook in the past year, 7.5 million—or more than one-third—were younger than 13 and not supposed to be able to use the site.

• Among young users, more than 5 million were 10 and under, and their accounts were largely unsupervised by their parents.

• One million children were harassed, threatened, or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on the site in the past year.

Clearly, using Facebook presents children and their friends and families with safety, security, and privacy risks.

The Consumer Reports survey underlines the issue of kids’ online safety. What’s most troubling is that many parents are not paying attention:

Parents of kids on Facebook aged 10 and younger seem to be largely unconcerned. Only 18 percent made their child a Facebook friend, which is the best way to monitor the child. By comparison, 62 percent of parents of 13- to 14-year-olds did so. Only 10 percent of parents of kids 10 and under had frank talks about appropriate online behavior and threats.

Parents of young children might think they are less likely to take risks, some observers say. “It’s like an alarm clock goes off for parents when their kids turn 13,” says Vanessa Van Petten, creator of Radical Parenting, a blog featuring writing by teenagers that aims to improve family relationships. “Parents think their younger kids aren’t interested in porn. With a 10-year-old mentality, they’re only interested in 10-year-old things.”

But those parents would be mistaken. Ten-year-olds need protection from other hazards that might lurk on the Internet, such as links that infect their computer with malware and invitations from strangers, not to mention bullies.

The Internet was not designed for children. Neither was social media. These grown-up domains are accessed by costly devices that children can’t afford to buy.

Think about that. And consider again the safety issue.

We can’t make the world safe for our kids. A necessary part of growing up is learning to deal with real and imagined dangers. We do, however, have a duty as parents to guide children through a succession of life challenges as best we can. And it is our society’s responsibility to call attention to and address large-scale threats to children’s wellbeing—especially the new set of dangers the Darkweb holds. We must all protect kids as best we can, especially on that mostly lawless Information Superhighway.

Safety must come first.

Surfing the Net wasn’t always as easy as it is now. I remember the mental tenacity it took to use the early computers with their slow, hit-and-miss dial-up Internet connections and frequent glitches. With today’s reliable high-speed computing, the vehicles on the Information Superhighway have no trouble starting and roll very smoothly, and younger and younger kids want to drive. And that’s what started me on this book. So we can talk about how to find a reasonable way forward in all this.

The medium is the problem. Shiny tech is attractive, personal and fun. Easy online access on a variety of devices is very new, very tantalizing and, with regard to young users, very worrisome. Social media shares us in texts and images. It attracts young users who don’t know its dangers let alone the impact of shiny tech use on their psyche.

The world is too much with us, Wordsworth wrote. He could not have imagined that it now fits in our hand, we carry it in our pocket.

This excerpt has been reprinted from Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Before It Re-Forms Us by Raffi Cavouikian, published by Homeland Press, 2013. 

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