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Your Kids Don’t Need Social Media

Facebook is waking up to what some of us knew all along

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

Facebook’s head-slapping, obvious decision to press pause on the development of Instagram for Kids is not just the right move, it’s an important seeming admission that social media isn’t for everyone.

The announcement comes months after Facebook announced it was working on experiences specifically designed for Tweens (11–13). That bit was folded into a blog post about the difficulty of keeping underage (under 13) kids off their services. As Facebook noted, it’s easy to lie online about your age (yup, online, nobody knows — still — if you’re a dog). The social media giant was just starting to use artificial intelligence to protect younger users (those between 13 and 18) from inappropriate content and contact from adults on their platforms.

It was a sign that Facebook was already well aware of the tension building up between attracting more young people (13 and older) to these platforms while keeping them safe. This is what made the rather tone-deaf plans to create, basically, an Instagram Kids even more galling.

I get the intention, which Facebook outlined in that same post:

We believe that encouraging them to use an experience that is age appropriate and managed by parents is the right path. It’s going to take a village to make this experience compelling enough so that this age group wants to use it, but we’re determined to get it right.

This wasn’t necessarily a silly or impossible dream. If Disney’s Club Penguin proved anything, it’s that you can build a safe platform for children that’s just as addictive as Instagram. Disney shuttered that platform in 2017, perhaps before Mark Zuckerberg realized he could buy it.

Even before then, children were adopting the same platforms (like AIM and Facebook, but mostly sans Twitter) their parents used and do so today. TikTok is a perfect example. Pre-tweens are downloading, lying about their age, and installing the ultra-popular app. However, instead of parents discovering it and shutting down access, the kids usually ending up teaching their parents a TikTok dance and then drafting them to appear in subsequent videos.

I guess it’s good that parents and kids are doing it together (which I think is also Facebook’s goal). I remember trying to sit with my kids when they were on Club Penguin and just found it mind-numbingly dull.

In all this, though, we’re neglecting the core question: Should children be on social media at all?

Recent reports and studies, which Facebook refutes, make clear the deleterious effect it has on teens. Less, it seems is known about tweens (though I imagine it’s just as bad) and children. There are some concerning studies that look at the growing number of hours a day children and tweens spend on these platforms.

Stepping away from the studies, I’ve concluded that social media before the age of 18 is probably bad for everyone.

I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but increasingly I worry that a young life lived through social media is not a life at all.

Some scientists believe that the soft, gray matter between our ears develops right into our 20s and most studies now contend that puberty does not mark the moment of brain maturation.

We know that tween and early teen years are especially difficult times for adolescents in the real world and those issues only intensify through the kaleidoscope of social media where praise and slights, happiness and anger, recognition and bullying are boiled down and intensified, coating our consciousness like some toxic glue.

Adults who’ve weathered storms in real life are probably better equipped to handle all this. Teens probably not. Tweens and children, absolutely not.

What our children need is less screen time and more eye-to-eye time. There is no substitute for what young people can learn by interacting directly with other human beings. It’s fairly accepted wisdom that young children, especially preschoolers thrive through social interaction. It helps build communication skills, learning, coping, and emotional health.

I think there may be a case for that kind of engagement being a crucial part of healthy mental development right into young adulthood. However, instead of technology and social media bringing us all closer together, I think it’s become, for some young people, a substitute for in-person human interaction at precisely the time they probably need more of it.

Having surrounded myself with technology, gadgets, software, and social media for decades, I’m the last person who should be preaching tech moderation. Still, I can’t escape the gnawing feeling that’s been growing inside for years: that our young people, those who are now coming into young adulthood might have been harmed by years of social media exposure and use. They are not truly social animals in the old sense of the term. They often don’t know how to talk to other people, engage with strangers when they need to, or operate in stressful environments.

There is no doubt though, that people are fed up with Facebook’s insistence that it can connect everyone in the world. Its products simply aren't for everyone or every age.

Listen, I like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, and use them every day. However, if I still had young children, I would keep them off every form of social media until they’re 16 (maybe even 18). It would be a battle, but whatever pain I might suffer in the short term, would be worth it in long-term outcomes.

Also, no, we really don’t need Instagram for Kids.

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Lance Ulanoff

Lance Ulanoff

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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