Imagine a pharmaceutical company announcing plans to market a new medical device to children. The device will inject tiny amounts of dopamine into kids’ brains every few minutes, making them happier throughout the day. Don’t worry, the pharmaceutical company explains, dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical, so there is no danger to children.
This is not a hypothetical situation. The company is Facebook, and the “device” is a proposed Instagram app for children younger than 13.
OK, Facebook is not literally a pharmaceutical company, but the social media giant and owner of Instagram often functions like one. It employs neuroscientists who carefully study, measure and conduct experiments on the ways its products affect the brain. And its programmers create algorithms that are designed to keep users scrolling on their phones.
Also, Instagram does not literally “inject” dopamine into the brain, instead it triggers the release of dopamine. The more “likes,” the more dopamine.
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If a researcher at a medical institution or university proposed an experiment of this kind, it would most likely not be approved. The proposal would have to pass a review board overseeing research on human subjects to ensure they are not exposed to undue risks. Such boards are especially rigorous when it comes to protecting children.
But social media companies are not medical institutions or universities. If there are no applicable laws preventing their activities, they are free to conduct business as they see fit, even where children are concerned.
On May 10, 44 U.S. attorneys general sent a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to abandon plans for the new app. All they can do is urge Facebook to reconsider, because no laws prevent it. (The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act is quite limited in scope.) Laws to prevent harm often are passed only after harm has been demonstrated. When new technologies come along, we often don’t know what dangers they present until it is too late.
For example, today there are plenty of laws aimed at protecting children from lead exposure. But those laws came about only after millions of people had the quality of their lives severely and irreversibly diminished.
Our situation regarding social media today is comparable to that with lead poisoning 50 years ago. We know it is probably bad for kids in all kinds of ways, but we don’t have absolute proof, and there are so many desirable uses for it, and so much money to be made from it, we seem content to just wait and see.
That’s morally unacceptable.
We actually know quite a bit about the dangers posed by social media; we are just focusing on the wrong ones.
Most of the concerns coming from child advocacy groups are about privacy, harmful images, cyberbullying and online predators. Facebook is working hard to address those concerns. But while such dangers are real, they not the major ones. Worrying about them is like worrying about contaminated needles while injecting someone with poison.
The chief harms from social media come from the ways it affects brain development over a period of time. Researchers still have much to learn, but sufficient studies have been done to make some preliminary conclusions about heavy social media use:
- It shrinks the part of the brain responsible for maintaining attention.
- It lessens social engagement.
- It causes memory deficits.
- It lowers test scores.
- It hampers the ability to multitask.
- It makes people more distrustful.
- It increases the incidence of depression.
The important thing to note is that these adverse effects do not come from “problems” that can be designed out of social media programs. They arise from social media functioning exactly the way it is supposed to.
What we do not know yet is precisely how the use of social media will affect young brains at various stages of development. While a child’s brain reaches full size between the ages of 11 and 14, brain development — especially of the prefrontal cortex — is not complete until the mid-20s. Will social media use in the teen years or earlier permanently impair the ability to focus? Will it adversely affect social and emotional intelligence? Will it diminish moral agency and ethical decision-making?
In short, what Facebook is proposing is a vast experiment on the developing brains of our nation’s children, and we may not know the full effects until it is too late to reverse them.
According to a recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek, Facebook claims the new app “will offer parents more control over their children’s social media habits.” Think about that for a moment. Imagine a cigarette manufacturer coming out with a new product they promise “will offer parents more control over their children’s tobacco habits.”
Surely, a serious society comprised of morally responsible people would seek to ensure that its children are protected from serious and predictable harms. It would not simply wait to see how bad the harm becomes.
Let’s put a halt to the thoughtless experimentation. Our kids deserve better.