Social Media – Candy Cigarettes?

Last Monday, Facebook Inc. launched Messenger Kids – a new app specifically tailored for children under 13 years old – enabling them to chat with friends via a simplified version of the main Facebook Messenger app with greater parental controls. The app was initially launched in the United States.

Many observers of the Social Media industry applauded the move, recognising that millions of under 13 year olds circumvent the rules and have Facebook accounts anyway and that this new app with its locked-down network and increased safety features, would give parents more control.

Others – including Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – pushed back with comments of ‘stay away from my kids please’. Other critics still, pointed to Facebook’s commercial motives, namely, attempting to reach the ‘child social media market’ before other in-fashion instant messaging apps like Snapchat do, which are successfully attracting the younger generation before Facebook does.

Ironic situation

There are three ironies to the recent debate around Facebook’s move:

  • Snapchat launched a locked-down child version – SnapKidz – in June 2013 which has subsequently been discontinued, so Facebook is attempting to pick-up where one of its competitors has failed
  • The ’13 year old’ minimum age limit originates from COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), a Federal Law passed in the US Congress – thus no scrutiny by lawmakers in the UK, despite it affecting millions of children in the UK.
  • COPPA was produced in 1998, well before the social media revolution started (Facebook launched in 2004) when lawmakers would have had no idea of the effects of increased social media use on children.

Psychological Effects

The real question we should be asking ourselves is: Should children be using social media at all?

Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, opined that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

The “dopamine hit” users receive from likes, comments and shares from social media posts, leading them to use the social media platform even more, is an extremely strong feedback loop that is well-studied by both medical researchers and marketing agencies alike.

The anxiety effect felt by users who are temporarily cut off from access to their social media devices has even spawned a new term to describe the effect, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and several studies have shown that even the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity.

Encountering Strangers

Away from addiction effects, the specific dangers for children in terms of encounters with strangers are also worrying.

The NSPCC said some social media platforms can be a “dangerous place for younger children, potentially exposing them to bullying, inappropriate content or grooming”. Sussex Police recently released an animation video warning young girls and boys about the risk of social media perverts who try to get them to send nude selfies and subsequently blackmail them. And unfortunately there are even cases of children having committed suicide due to relationships formed – and broken – on social media whilst their families were unaware.

Technology: Benefits and Risks

As with many things in life, the problem is not with technology itself, but rather in the way human beings interact and utilise them. For example:

  1. I can use my car to drive to and from work to earn a living, but I can also drive it dangerously and kill someone.
  2. Fireworks are fun and exciting to watch, but used incorrectly, can cause serious harm.

As a society, we recognise the benefits, but also the risks, that new technologies bring us and we develop legislation and social norms to manage those risks. In the above cases, society has collectively decided that:

  1. To drive you must be over 17 years old and have passed a nationally-recognised theory and practical test to receive a licence.
  2. Fireworks can only be sold to over 18 year olds in the UK and it is illegal for an under 18 year old to possess fireworks in a public place

Can you imagine a child driving a car? Or playing with fireworks without parental supervision?

In both the above cases, lawmakers have explicitly judged that it is wholly unsuitable for an under-aged child to engage in those activities, in order to minimise the risks to both the child, as well as wider society.

Minimum Age Limit

We must introduce a minimum age-limit on the use of social media that is effectively monitored and enforced, rather than encourage children to use so-called ‘safe’ forms of social media like Facebook Messenger Kids.

What the exact age-limit is must be decided by lawmakers in the UK and according to the latest research on the social media industry.

Many people push the solution of educating our children on how to choose appropriate apps and encouraging them to use those apps responsibly, but this is a complete red herring.

The solution is to cut-off its use entirely until an age where most children will be responsible enough to understand the risks and benefits it brings to their lives, in similarity to driving a car, using fireworks or other similarly high-risk activities.

The half-measured approach today of some parents allowing their children to use social media while others do not is simply unsustainable. Many parents will know that the mere peer pressure on a child who isn’t allowed to use social media whilst all their other friends at school are happily playing away on their smartphones during playtime can cause depression and mental ill-health.

We are giving candy cigarettes to our children and encouraging them to be addicted to social media.

We are destroying the next generation.

The time to stop this is now.

10 thoughts on “Social Media – Candy Cigarettes?

  1. Abul Qasim Asadi 10th December 2017 at 8:30 pm

    I completely agree, children of this age should not be allowed to acccess these apps because they will reduce their abilities and waste their potential youth and energy for other more meaningful activities.

  2. Fatima Rizvi 10th December 2017 at 8:47 pm

    Excellent! You nailed it!

  3. Tom 10th December 2017 at 10:15 pm

    Every time legislation is proposed, it has to pass a test to become law. That test is difficult to describe, and there are plenty of articles and debates about “legislating morality”. However, in general, it should be enforceable and affordable and have a net benefit to society.

    I don’t believe banning social networks for young children passes the first nor third points. In particular I think the loss in freedom, and associated normalisation of illegality that would occur, mean it’s not in the public interest to do this.

    There are plenty of things that harm development more-think TV, or lack of exercise, or lack of day trips and holidays, or rubbish food. These are dealt with through taxation, if at all. Stick to taxes if at all

    • Hassan 12th December 2017 at 6:58 am

      Great points Tom.

      Re: illegality becoming normal, see points below about difficulty (or lack of) to enforce – if there was the will.

      Re: other things that harm child development, completely agree about TV, junk food, lack of exercise etc, and these are dealt with through other means (9pm watershed hour, sugar tax etc.)

      The difference between these and social media is the well-documented and strong evidence linking use of social media to anxiety, mental health and depression, much more than the previous examples, through enabling communication with a huge number of other people instantly (and often displacing communication in real life). See here:

      The risks of anxiety, mental ill-health etc are manageable/controllable by most adults, but children should be protected from these risks until they reach a minimum age. Also I would struggle to see how taxation on use of social media could work, as most social media is free to use and is paid for through advertising.

  4. Yousif 11th December 2017 at 7:42 am

    Great article. The issue for me is whether banning it would actually prevent access for younger people, or will techniques be developed (such as use of vpn) to access social networking sites by those younger.

  5. Rasheed 11th December 2017 at 9:04 pm

    Placing restrictions that are impossible to police always leads to circumvention. The most important factor here is educating parents in understanding the potential dangers of social media. It is the equivalent of allowing your child to roam around a public place unsupervised. The only difference is that social media is a cyberspace and the area much larger. In the end it is the parents’ decision to let the child go off on their own or not. Generally speaking, all parents know the dangers in the real open world however, those that did not grow up with social media are oblivious to the dangers in the digital world. The generation who first started social media are only just starting to have kids so maybe they will be better educated or more aware. It is up to the new generation to enforce the rules on their children and teach them of the dangers of social media. It is the same as when we are taught not to talk to strangers or take any food from them.

    • Hassan 12th December 2017 at 6:49 am

      Re: argument that stopping children from using social media is impossible to enforce – it’s a good and very practical point. I argue that actually we stop children from doing many other things in society (e.g. driving, using fireworks, smoking) and this would actually be very easy to enforce – if we had the will to do it.

      Even if we accepted it would be ‘challenging’ to enforce, look at the example of Drinking Alcohol and Driving in the UK. In the 1960s, despite strong evidence showing the link to higher road accidents and fatalities, it was so common to drink alcohol and drive that many people thought it would be impossible to stop it. However through a mixture of public education (advert campaigns etc.) and strong legislation (minimum limits, police breathaylser tests), today in 2017 the rates of drink driving are much lower and today it is viewed by most people as socially unacceptable.

      No doubt some people will still circumvent the rules/do it and not get caught – it is impossible to stop everyone – but the vast majority of people have stopped.

      If we spent half the efforts we are currently spending on educating children and parents how to use apps responsibly, to instead educating them that its best to avoid using them until a minimum age (e.g. 16 years old, or whatever legislators decide is best), and instead encourage our children to spend their time doing more useful things like:
      – playing in the park
      – learning to swim
      – reading a book
      – meeting their friends (in real life)…

      …then I believe our society would be in a much stronger position.

      • Rasheed 12th December 2017 at 9:08 am

        Agree, drink driving became socially unacceptable not due to draconian legislation but more due to the education of the destruction of lives it causes. Public awareness was increased with effective media campaigns and legislation enabled the end goal. In the same way, educating the public on the dangers of unsupervised/underage social media will be the first step as the legislation will need to ‘make sense’ in the public’s mind.

      • Abul Qasim 13th December 2017 at 8:45 pm

        completely agree with you hassan

  6. Hassan 13th December 2017 at 7:53 pm

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