Their key products are agents of decentralised suspicion, generating information overload and feeding both populist paranoia and centrist hysteria. Meanwhile, their leaders run transnational pseudo-governments, exerting traditional political powers — cultural censorship, political banishment, the structuring of vast marketplaces — without clear lines of political accountability.
Figuring out how to cope with these challenges is a generational political project, and there’s a reasonably strong possibility that the Khanate of Facebook and the Most Serene Republic of Amazon will defeat the efforts of merely real-world republics to restrain their power. But still, there’s a place to start that’s relatively free of the policy dilemmas that shadow most plans to regulate the internet: We can try to seal off more of childhood and adolescence from social media’s reach.
Two weeks ago The Wall Street Journal reported on what Facebook’s own internal research shows about how Instagram, its photo-based social network, affects the mental state of the roughly 22 million teenagers who log on in the U.S. every day. The revelations will be unsurprising to anyone who has glanced at social trends since the social media era dawned, or for that matter anyone who knows anyone with teenage kids: The internal documents suggested that the app contributed to depression and anxiety, to suicidal ideation, and to body-image issues for teen girls.
These are hardly the first findings to link social media use and the unhappiness of young people, and whenever information like this enters the public conversation, there are two main reactions.
On the one hand, from skeptics who fear a runaway moral panic and are inclined to give new technology the benefit of the doubt, there are attempts to pick apart the data, to argue that correlation isn’t causation (maybe kids who are already prone to unhappiness are more likely to spend extra time online, etc.) or to point out problems and issues with the studies (the approach that Facebook took in this case, effectively throwing shade on its own internal research). These responses assume that arguing for restraints on a product that people clearly like to use is inherently dangerous or illiberal — and thus the burden is on the restrainers to establish ironclad proof of the danger that they fear.
Alternatively, from people primed to believe the evidence that social media is bad for you, there is a surge of familiar anger at the tech companies themselves, which are accused of caring only about their numbers (“expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue,” the Journal story notes of Facebook, “and it doesn’t want to jeopardise their engagement with the platform”) instead of being socially responsible and recognising that they’re a bunch of nerds getting rich while ruining the world.
My own feeling is that when you’re dealing with kids, neither of these reactions is quite right. Many of the problems created by internet companies involve the aggregation of decisions made, for want of a better phrase, by consenting adults. Amazon has helped hollow out the American heartland, in part, because millions of people love convenience and low prices.
Misinformation, rumour and fake news spread on Facebook, in part, because there’s a strong human predisposition to share things that confirm our own biases and, in this country, First Amendment protections for doing so. And while it may be that the common good requires that some adult decisions be overridden or restrained, in a free society we understandably hesitate before making that kind of judgment.
Douthat is a columnist with NYT©2021
The New York Times