Discover more from mostlyDad
Social Media is Not Safe for Your Kids (or You)
My kids use their iPads a lot. I mean a lot. Almost as much as I use my phone. The thing is a constant companion from the time they get home from school to the time they go to bed, whenever they aren’t at gym practice or swimming in the pool or jumping on the trampoline. They do other things too, of course, but even when playing with toys or creating dance routines in the living room or painting on the kitchen table, the thing is lurking in the background, providing a constant ward against the silence.
They mostly play Minecraft or Roblox or whatever the latest free mobile game they downloaded is. Or they watch YouTube. So much YouTube. Goofy pet videos or crazy people doing ridiculous challenges or idiots playing video games. It’s generally harmless, if not exactly educational. They love it, and it keeps them occupied while we finish working or exercising or cooking dinner.
My wife hates it. I am vaguely uneasy about the sheer volume, but I’ve mostly made my peace with the reality. Maybe that’s because I spent much of my childhood doing the same thing with the TV or PC or Gameboy. They do plenty of other activities, so if they want to relax on the couch when at home, I don’t think it will cause any permanent damage. We’ve set up some filters and limits, especially around bedtime, but neither of us are worried quite enough to do much about it. In truth, we’re just as bad as they are. There’s no avoiding it forever. It’s part of the world we live in. Better get used to it.
But I draw the line at social media. I’m fine if my kids eat some junk food, but I'm not feeding them fentanyl tablets. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and the rest are toxic. You might survive small doses in the right context as an adult, but even trace amounts are highly addicting, and it’s not the type of thing you want to start early.
Technology in general has an unfortunate habit of eating away at our humanity by providing comfortable pathways for thought and action that never force you to examine your reasons or interact with people you don’t want to or face the consequences of your limitations. Social media absolutely gobbles it, preying on our most fundamental qualities, the way we think about ourselves and communicate with others and live as a community. If you’re not careful, it will devour you, mind and soul, making you anxious or cynical or shallow, because it feeds us constant highs for going along, gnaws at our greatest fears, and makes succumbing to our worst impulses easy, if not required.
It’s an example of how our best intentions, if not carefully examined, can create the opposite of our desire. Most of these sites, like the original internet itself, were intended as a sort of public commons, a place where you could both gather with your friends and meet other people in the same community or with similar interests. The concept isn’t so different from going to a public park or hanging out in a crowded bar. There might be countless smaller groups, lots of good conversation, plenty of disagreement and discussion, maybe even a few fights here and there, but it would be a place where everyone could come together for a time before heading home for the night.
Most people could probably agree with the ideal public forum would be. It would be a place where everyone was welcome, people would be civil and polite, able to disagree and argue while having a genuine discussion on any topic. Maybe some sides would prefer a little more openness and freedom to discuss hard subjects. Maybe some sides would prefer a little more protection from harmful or offensive language. Maybe we would quibble over the exact definition and limits of hate speech or free speech. But the general principles and goals are not in dispute. We all want somewhere to discuss important (or unimportant) matters without fear of bullying or rejection, without hate or malice, without misunderstanding or misinterpretation, without endless posturing or preening. Does anyone think our social media forums accomplish this? Do any of them come close?
Twitter in the worst. The character limit doesn’t simply discourage deep, nuanced discussions, it makes them literally impossible. It breaks every subject into soundbites, every reply into a cheap retort, every discussion into a contest of who can be the loudest, the wittiest, or the meanest. Interaction is shallow by design and argumentative by intent.
Facebook is perhaps the most controversial and scorned. At least it allows for long-form thoughts and discussions (I generally post these essays on the site), even if they rarely materialize in practice. But much has been made of their infamous algorithm and the despised “like” button. Both were introduced as a way to make sense of the exponentially expanding flood of information. Unlike an actual public space, where everyone can talk all at once, a website must have some way of sorting data. Only so much can fit on the screen at one time, and something has to be first. It turns out what’s listed first (and on the first page) is extremely important, getting almost all of the attention, while anything after that gets very little by comparison. When’s the last time you made it to the second page of a Google search?
So how do you determine what to put at the top? Obviously, the best, highest quality posts and comments. How do you determine what is the best? You let the people vote! This is a democracy, after all. The content people “like” the most must be what they want to see (and what generates the most traffic for the site). Combined with all the data on what people view and when they leave comments, plugged into an unbiased mathematical algorithm, we end up with a very elegant and effective way to keep people engaged and to solve information overload. Maybe you don’t remember what the early web was like, a wild and unorganized jumble of disconnected webpages and unfiltered opinions, not unlike everyone at the local bar all trying to talk at once, but most people acknowledged it was a fun but unworkable system that would eventually collapse under its own weight. The algorithm, starting with Google and then Facebook, saved the internet, transforming it into the nightmare we know and love today.
There are too many problems with the system to discuss each here—you can see the results for yourself, from depression and anxiety to hate and violence—but they all essentially come down to the idea of a positive feedback loop. Popular posts get pushed to the top, where they then consume most of the attention, getting pushed even higher. A few cycles of this, and the funny video or newest meme created by an anonymous person for his ten closest friends has been seen by a hundred million people. It’s a nice idea in theory. If something is really good, shouldn’t it be available to the most people possible? Don’t we want the best discussions and arguments and entertainment or content to be the ones elevated around the world? Except there’s a flaw in the theory. The popular is a poor substitute for the good.
Some of it is human nature. We have a wide variety of tastes in the finer parts of life, but our vices are basically all the same. Some people appreciate great music, some literature, some art, some philosophy, some craftsmanship. Some people enjoy nature, others want conversation, some like to play games, others watch competition, some relish physical activity, others a relaxing bath. Pretty much everyone is titillated by sex and drawn to violence. Consider that our biggest blockbusters are not generally sophisticated, intelligent art pieces. You will find a great deal of difference and debate on what vegetables are good, but everyone agrees on chocolate. As a dad, it can be tough to make a dinner that satisfies the whole family. Desert is easy.
This explains how the algorithms that manage our discourse can succeed in all the particulars and yet still fail at scale. The truly good things are elevated within their domain but are isolated to that small population. The crude and the cruel, whatever inspires anger or excitement or pride or disgust, have a chance to break out of their small audience and go viral, infecting the entire society. A forum or Facebook group dedicated to antique cars might do a great job of elevating the most interesting and relevant and quality information. But the headlines and stories and topics that dominate our society at large are generally the worst of what we have to offer.
The dynamic creates another problem for our discourse. Unless you are the President, you don’t often address a national audience. Your post or tweet was written for a small group of people you know and who know you, probably in response to some specific, individual situation or discussion. If it goes viral, because it happens to make people angry in California, the millions of people who read it will not have the personal connection or the essential context that informs it. They have entered into a conversation not meant for them, in a situation that doesn’t concern them, from a person they don’t know. It makes each other impossible to understand but easy to hate. How else to describe our public discourse than people raging at what they do not understand and hating people they do not know?
The algorithms exacerbate this affect by amplifying agreement and suppressing dissent, making it easy and rewarding to pile on and extremely difficult to fight against. If you sort everything by what people “like,” you will naturally create a hierarchy of agreement. The most visible and therefore attention-getting ideas in any given community will be those with which the community agrees. In many scenarios, it’s not a fatal flaw if only the jokes most people find funny or the music most people enjoy or the dog pictures most people think are the only things people see. But it can be a real problem in areas of wide disagreement or debate or uncertainty, when all discussion necessarily converges on a consensus, whether that consensus is real or not. It’s difficult to learn or to change your mind if you are never exposed to genuine disagreement, if being part of a community means you are punished for going against the consensus, if all dissenting opinions are hidden from you, exiled to the bottom of the page where no one ever looks. Anyone not part of the consensus will leave the group or toil in obscurity. The result is separate communities that cover the same ground but never cross paths, both absolutely certain of their righteousness, each despising the other without knowing exactly who they are. This is how to make an echo chamber. You take the natural human tendency toward confirmation bias, and build an entire society upon it.
Google and Facebook and most of the other social networks have inscrutable algorithms classified as trade secrets, so we don’t know all of the many factors that go into what you see on the screen and why it so often ends up so terrible. Many critics and reformers have called for greater transparency into the algorithms as a way to limit some of the worst offenses or root out certain biases or hold the companies accountable. But transparency won’t save us. The bias isn’t in the code. It’s in humanity. The best example of this is a social network that doesn’t get as much attention, despite it’s size. Reddit is a simple forum divided into user-generated and moderated communities (called “subreddits”) based on topics of interest. It has a very transparent, simple, logical algorithm, and it’s terrible.
I browse Reddit for exactly one reason. They have some of the best gaming communities, so it’s a good place to get news or tips or discussion on games. But when I open the app, all the top posts or news stories pop up, and I will sometimes play a little game of my own. I click on some post (the site’s community leans heavily leftward, so many of the top posts are political, many of them somewhat more extreme than the mainstream), and I scroll through the comments until I find one reply that disagrees or has a counterpoint. Occasionally I find one near the bottom of the thread. Many times I don’t. You can read through thousands of comments on an issue before you get any indication that the original point may not be entirely correct or may be missing something or may not be agreed with by everyone. Assuming people disagree about absolutely everything, how does that happen?
Reddit’s version of the “like” button is an “upvote” and the corresponding “downvote.” Posts in any given community are ranked by a combination of time and votes. A post is higher on the list if it is newer and if it has more upvotes, such that a new post will generally be higher than an older post unless the older post has enough upvotes to keep it at the top, though the effect is diminishing. It’s simple. The more people like a post, the higher it will be, the more people will see it, and the longer it will stick around. Alternatively, if even a few people downvote a post or comment, it will get sent to the bottom of the list, where no one is likely to see it at all, much less upvote it back to the top.
Furthermore, users generate “karma” with their posts and comments, based on the number of upvotes they get, which grants certain privileges for high karma and restricts posting or commenting for low karma. It’s a way for the community to police itself, elevating the useful or popular content by upvoting while eliminating toxic or problematic posts or even members by downvoting them. This transparent, simple, logical system actively rewards you for saying what people want and punishes you for disagreeing. Little wonder it is so hard to find opposing views. Little wonder the discussion tends to become more and more extreme over time.
The harmful effects of this discourse are obvious in our dysfunctional politics, but the implications go far beyond the political. Technology is the medium through which we interact with the world. Interconnected networks in general, and social media in particular, are the way we do not only our news and politics, but our relationships, our communities, our work, our entertainment, our relaxation. You spend more time, whether by choice or not, interacting with things far away from you than things that are close. And everything distributed across such a vast network must necessarily be shaped according to priorities far beyond your control.
So you get many people (maybe you) who are angry all the time, constantly on edge about some dumb thing a politican did or what some idiot said in their twitter feed or what their old high school friend posted on Facebook or some new government policy that will probably never affect them. You get people (maybe you) who are in a constant state of anxiety because every small tragedy or threat, no matter how unlikely or uncommon, gets stuck to the top of your screen, and therefore your life. You get people (maybe you, maybe your kids) who have chronic doubt and insecurity because so much of life has become a competition for likes and attention, an arms race of glam and gloss that makes ordinary life feel dull and the average person inadequate. You get people (maybe you, maybe me) who have hollowed out almost all of their relationships because its so easy to get by without ever going beyond a small picture and few words on a screen.
I’m not suggesting your throw away your phone, smash up all of your computers, and live off-the-grid in the forests of North Dakota. Anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, all are human emotions. You can’t avoid them in any location or time period. You will have to wrestle with them at some point in your life. But you don’t have to seek them out, either. You don’t have to subject yourself to all the innovative ways we’ve found to make them worse. You don’t have to expose your children to them at the earliest possible age. You can be smart with how you interact with our modern world.
Start by staying off social media. You don’t really need to see what is going on with that person you met that one time ten years ago, even if they have cute kids or puppies or chickens. I know it’s convenient to keep up with the people you truly do care about, but you can do that directly with a little effort. You can trade pictures or stories on your phone or in person.
And you don’t need to know what everyone is saying on Twitter. You don’t have to have an opinion on the topic of the day or join the mob in denouncing the current villain. You don’t need to know what some report or politician or celebrity thinks about every single current event. It’s fun, I’ve been there, but it will consume your life with trivialities.
You don’t have to know what all your friends are posting on Instagram, what they are eating or wearing or doing at any given moment of the day. It’s not real, anyway. Wouldn’t you rather just be there when you are with them and not worry about them when you aren’t? No amount of little hearts on your photo will make you feel as loved as one good hug from a friend.
Don’t let your kids use them or any of the endlessly multiplying new applications that come about. Once they start, it will be very difficult to stop. They don’t need to be in contact with their friends (and strangers) at every hour of the day, constantly parading themselves for the internet’s approval, building up identities as fragile as they are fake. They can still call and text and talk at school and hang out in the wild and do all of the things kids have always done without the influence of worldwide networks.
And if you are going to use any social media, do it in small doses for specific purposes. Join small communities you care about based on a hobby or an interest or a group of real friends, where you can ask questions and have discussion and create meaningful connections. You can care about a few topics or a few people or a certain place; you can’t care about everything, and trying is likely to break you in one way or another. My daughter has an Instagram for her gym activities and friends, which my wife manages, and that seems to work out fine, but we don’t let her mindless scroll for fun or connect with anyone she sees. Also, our chickens have a feed. Don’t ask.
Most of all, stay local. Keep your attention and concern on the people close to you, those who you have the ability to influence, for better or worse, in your daily life. Your family, your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers. You can use all of the wonders of technology to help you, so long as you keep your focus. So much of our daily trouble and worry involves getting caught up in people and events far beyond our reach. Those things rarely have any impact on our lives, and we never have any impact on them. But you can have a positive impact on the people around you. You can enjoy each other and help each other. You can deeply understand and truly connect with them. That’s how you build a meaningful life.