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When will social media companies get serious about their effect on young kids?

By Jenny Anderson

The list of people who are worried about what technology and social media are doing to our kids’ brains is growing.

Last week, the Lancet published (pdf) an editorial calling for social media companies to step up. “Key to protecting children on social media is more responsibility and better accountability from the private international companies that operate these public spaces,” the editorial said. Citing recent research from the Children’s Commissioner for England, the journal said companies can’t build sites to attract and hook young people and then turn a blind eye to the effects: either they provide a safe environment for younger kids, or they enforce the age restrictions which are widely ignored (the Commission says three-quarters of kids aged 10-12 have their own accounts).

“It is unprincipled to have it both ways and benefit commercially from the presence of underage users,” the Lancet said.

The editorial is the latest in a growing chorus of discontent over what social media may be doing to our kids’ brains. The problem is, we don’t really know the long-term effects of social media on children, which leaves us feeling a bit powerless to push back against inextricable lure of connection and affirmation. We turn on parental controls that kids can hack, and create tech-free zones and hours (previously known as bedtime) to try and mitigate the effects. It should not be this way. Social media giants should share what they know about younger users—I’m guessing they have some data—and embrace design principles around protection, not simply “interaction.”

Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s original investors and its first president, said Facebook “exploits” human psychology. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he added. Last week, two of Apple’s major investors called on the company to invest more in research about how technology affects kids, and report on its findings. “It would defy common sense to argue this this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact,” the investors wrote.

The report by the Children’s Commissioner for England examined the social media habits of 32 children aged 8-12, looking at how they accessed it, what they did on the platforms, and how it made them feel. Kids said they valued the tools to connect and stay in contact with friends and family, but as they got older social media became more about managing their image and seeking social affirmation.

Parents need to do more to help their kids manage social media, getting in the muck of what they are doing online and having the uncomfortable conversations that will certainly follow. The report urges parents not to share their own social media feeds—which can be laced with age-inappropriate content—and not post pictures of their kids to their accounts.

It also urged technology companies to do more, including:

  • Writing terms and conditions in a way that a child, agreeing to those conditions, could understand
  • Protecting a child’s right to privacy
  • Allowing kids to curate their own content
  • Conducting and and publishing research on how to make their sites safer

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Agesuggests we acknowledge our vulnerabilities in the face of technology, and exercise some initiative. “We have to commit ourselves to designing our products and our lives to take that vulnerability into account,” she said.