There’s nothing social about social media: We have to protect our kids by severely restricting smartphone access

Apr 4, 2022 | Latest News

Picture an open playground, with no fencing or wall around it. No supervisors and no parents. No access controls. With random adults distributing suspicious candy at will. That is what children’s smartphones are.

Watch: Access to my child

 This article is meant to be provocative. To expose a wound in our society, I need to rip off the Band-Aid we’ve used to hide it. It may offend some, but my hope is that readers see the greater purpose — to protect our children.

Trust your parental instincts

Cognitive dissonance is the deep discomfort you feel when your actions are in conflict with your beliefs, values and instincts. Specifically, in this case, parental instincts.

Think about the moment you handed your child their first cellphone. The tingling in the back of your neck. That voice begging you to stop. And the stories you told yourself to hush them:

“She will be ostracised at school if I don’t.”
“I need to be able to get hold of him at any time.”
“I’ve brought my child up to know wrong from right.”
“They need to keep up with the digital world.”
“They’re going to access this stuff anyway, might as well be controlled by me.”
And the most naïve of all: “I trust my child.”

These are the natural human reactions to cognitive dissonance. Your mind creates the false logic needed to validate your actions and restore your moral self-worth. Only this time it is not about you. It is about the wellbeing of the most precious thing in your life: your child.

I have the simultaneous privilege of working at the forefront of such technology and being dad to two young boys (aged 12 and seven years old). Knowing what I know, my children will not have phones until they are at least 16 — no matter how difficult society tries to make that choice for me or them.

I am not alone either. Tristan Harris, in the documentary film The Social Dilemma, made the trenchant observation that none of the tech giants’ CEOs allow their children on digital platforms — the very same platforms that have made them millions through the capture of other people’s children.

Once you understand the system, the choice is not even a choice at all. You don’t have to be in the tech industry or understand it in any real depth to make it. All you have to do is look up from your phone for an undistracted five minutes and contemplate the points I am about to make:

1. Privacy is not protection
When there’s a staged fight in the store, nobody will be looking at the cash register. Our focus on privacy has been so intense that we forget that privacy does not equal protection at all. It would take a novice hacker nothing more than a sip of Red Bull and a few minutes to triangulate your child without either their name or phone number. All they would need is the last three selfies she posted on any platform, and perhaps one like/share from a friend.

Much like a drug dealer, it would probably be easier for them not to know their victim. Our governments have fallen hook, line and sinker for this fallacy and through the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations and our own Protection of Personal Information Act they are active participants in the wrong fight.

To highlight this point: None of these policies was broken in the tragic events outlined in My Only Story — a South African true-crime podcast about predators preying on children. The information and access used by the perpetrators were always volunteered by their victims.

2. Big Tech isn’t evil — it’s just business
The complex balance of shareholder value and social responsibility has always tipped to the wrong side. Big Tech is as culpable as the tobacco companies are in the matter of smokers’ health. Over time, the extent of their accountability would be limited to a warning on the packaging. The real evil is much simpler, even if inconvenient to admit. It is our choice. To quote a Netflix executive, “our biggest competition isn’t Prime Video; it’s sleep”. Taking accountability for maintaining a healthy balance cannot be abdicated.

3. Anti-social media
To use Sir Ken Robinson’s words, there’s nothing social about social media. The name is as paradoxical as “safe explosives”. We all know this. It is our job to vehemently protect our children’s social development and not allow that to be hijacked by technological stand-ins for parents. Consider a no-phone party for teenagers. Wouldn’t that be something? And the lack thereof cannot be offloaded at the feet of any Zuckerberg. It is ours to carry.

We must understand the nature of psychological addiction. The first aspect is denial. To prove this, I ask you to estimate (without checking) the hours per day you spent on your phone last week.

Now check your actual screen time under “Settings” on your iPhone or Android device. (For iPhone users: click Settings > Screen Time > Scroll down beneath the graph and tap See All Activity. For Android users: click Settings > Tap Digital Wellbeing & Parental Controls > Beneath Your Digital Wellbeing Tools, tap Show Your Data).

I’ve done this experiment many times, and most people will find their estimate is at least 30% to 50% below the actual number. Now add the vulnerability of a child to the spectrum of denial, and realise how out of control they are when managing their own phone time. You are literally providing unfettered access to the liquor cabinet and expecting them to drink responsibly.

Actually, that analogy is wrong. The smartphone created the ability to carry this addiction wherever we go, so it’s more like a bottomless hip flask than a cabinet at home. Take your child’s phone away unannounced, and see whether their irritable response even resembles a child any more. You will not experience the familiar tantrums, nor will they dissipate by banishment to their rooms. It will resemble addiction, because that is exactly what it is.

4. The open internet is the problem
Social media is simply a subset. In our rush to emulate the developed world, we have not paused to consider the irregularity in their logic. In Canada, for example, access to the internet is considered the right of every citizen, but there are few restrictions to and even less enforcement of what happens on it.

There are many reasons for this, chief among them is that most of the damage that has and will occur shows itself only in the long term. This is the nature of psychological trauma. It often lies dormant for decades, only to present itself in subtle cues. Until one day it explodes. Consider the #metoo movement, for example. I, for one, was shocked by how pervasive the abuse was and how many had been affected: People close to us, by people close to us. And yet, most of us barely reflected on the cues that were ever present and we chose, yes chose, to ignore them.

Humour me with this one example to demonstrate an uncomfortable, not-so-subtle point. (There will be nothing humorous by the end of it.) Take out your phone and type the word “Porn” into your Google browser. Now click on the image search to see what unfettered access to the open internet can look like to your child. I am not conservative when it comes to porn. Nor have I forgotten my pubescent boarding school days of seeking it out. What concerns me is that the nature of the pictures has changed. In my day, I had occasional access to static nude pictures mostly and some of active sex. Generally, what most adults today would consider normal.

About 30% of the pornographic images today border on rape. The women are clearly not enjoying the act, and often seemed forced and helpless. This is not inexplicable. The universal access to online platforms means there is a constant dilution of impact. Teenagers need more and more extremes to get off, and the only way to keep them interested is by pushing the forbidden apple further and further. So far it is positioned somewhere between incest and rape. “Step-sister” is the most searched category of PornHub, which is among the top 10 most-viewed websites of all time across the globe.

Only Fans, a social media platform where teenage girls can sell videos of themselves online, recently tried to prevent its use for pornographic content. It rescinded the restrictions within a week of implementation because the “fan” base disagreed. In a country where gender-based violence is already at excruciating levels, what will our boys grow up to model?

5. Who is accessing whom?
We need to understand who is getting access when you hand your child a phone. Is it your child, or is it every big tech company or social media platform, and other platforms in general, that are gaining access to your child? In a digital world where clicks are currency and addiction is the wallet, what chance does your child have to exercise their own agency?

Picture an open playground, with no fencing or wall around it. No supervisors and no parents. No access controls. With random adults distributing suspicious candy at will, and all you get to be is a distant voice in the background competing for your child’s attention. That is what their phone is.

So, what is the solution?

Simply, we need to ban smartphones for children under the age of 16. Access to the internet must be controlled, focused and physically constrained. It will require communities to lead, and each of us to show leadership and responsibility to the community. Contravention must be as socially unacceptable as perpetually drunk children with parents who don’t care. Only collective and deliberate implementation will work.

Trust me, the children will survive the ban. In fact, they will be more likely to survive as a result.

I am not utopian in thinking they will never use or be used by a smartphone. Just that by the time that they are, they would have had many years of hearing your voice loudest. Years where you didn’t compete with three to four hours a day of targeted noise. You would then have had the opportunity to instill the moral compass needed to navigate the open internet with some chance of reaching land.

Currently, even the best schools only go as far as to ban smartphones in their classrooms, not children who have phones. In fact, most children treat their school parking lots like a designated office smoking area, desperate to light up.

We, as parents, must lead. Society and governments will follow. Any inconvenience in doing this is trivial in light of who we are saving: Our children. 

Written by Ajit Gopalakrishnan


Posted in the Daily Maverick on 27 March 2022.

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