“There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software.” This quote by the renowned statistician Edward Tufte was popularised through a Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. This 2020 docudrama featured experts from Silicon Valley raising the red flag on the dangerous impact of social networking. In a world where we have let social media pervade our dining, drawing and even bedroom, the fact that a few tech industries have control over how we think, that too in a system that is designed to capture and monetise our attention, is alarming enough.

On top of it, in March this year, Instagram announced plans to launch a version of the popular photo-sharing app that children below the age of 13 can “safely” use. The reason?

“Kids are already online” (despite the fact that kids below 13 are technically not allowed to be online) and “more and more kids” want to use Instagram, said Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram who was overseeing ‘Instagram Kids.’

After a severe backlash from public health experts, child advocacy groups, policymakers, and parents, Facebook decided to pause the ‘Instagram Kids’ project. In the statement released late last month, Mosseri said that Facebook still believes “Instagram Kids is the right thing to do”. Stressing that the company has only paused the decision to introduce ‘Instagram Kids’ and not halted the plan, the statement declares, “we’ll use this time to demonstrate the value and need for this product.”

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation into Facebook revealed that Facebook knew Instagram was toxic for teen girls. After the report’s publication, the tech giant immediately went into the defensive and said that the company is committed to providing a safe experience to teenagers. They also claimed that the internal documents in which WSJ based its investigation is itself evidence that Facebook periodically looks into how Instagram affects its users. And how exactly does Facebook help the teens suffering from mental health issues? Its algorithms direct users to mental health helpline numbers and mental health experts’ pages after analysing the user activity on its platform. Perhaps a wiser move would have been to inform users that they would feel much better if they took some time off the virtual world.

It is human nature to sometimes seek validation from the people surrounding us. However, as pointed out in the documentary The Social Dilemma, we are not evolved to seek validation from hundreds or even thousands of social media followers. Social comparison and social validation are but just part of the problem. Studies have repeatedly shown that social media contributes to mass misinformation campaigns and is responsible for rising polarisation and intolerance in societies. Social media is also known to incite partisanship, polarisation and the creation of echo chambers.

A global outage of Facebook’s network of services a few weeks back has made us realise once again how much we are dependent on these platforms. At a time when even adults are battling social media addiction and its related afflictions, the age-old truism prevention is better than cure is never more pertinent. Whatever the intention of its developers, it cannot be denied that ‘Instagram Kids’ is a potential threat to tweens’ sound emotional and mental health and in extreme cases, even physical health. True, Facebook revolutionised the world. It changed the way we interacted with our peers. But we can no longer pretend to ignore the toxicity these platforms spew.

A letter signed by members of the National Association of Attorneys General in the US states clearly: “It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform (Instagram Kids) appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account.” While there can be no consensus regarding what a safe networking platform should be like, one thing is sure; our kids can wait another two years or more to be introduced to these platforms.

Author’s note: The documentary The Social Dilemma, originally released on Netflix, is now available to watch for free on YouTube until 31st October.


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