It’s time for some harsh New Year’s honesty. The rise of social media, coupled with smartphones, has led to a vast, still-expanding societal crisis.
Sound a bit dramatic? It’s actually deadly serious. Our kids’ lives are at stake.
To be sure, no one single person or company in the media, advertising and tech industries are to blame. But we all need to do something about it.
The stakes couldn’t be higher
In the past decade, Silicon Valley’s tech giants have essentially been conducting a vast sociological experiment with zero oversight, regulation or foresight. We are literally talking about billions of people across the globe -- and the consequences of any mistakes are potentially tragic.
If you haven’t seen it in your own life, read the headlines. Take in the alarming statistics on spikes in cyber-bullying and suicide rates.
More broadly, the more kids spend time interacting via apps, the less time they spend developing vital social skills. Navigating high school is hard enough. It’s much harder if you’re not equipped to connect with people one-on-one.
As a tech founder and CEO, I feel these trends simply can’t ignored. More personally, as father of a young boy, I’m living these fears daily. I’m terrified we are losing an entire generation to this issue — and we need to do something about it.
To be sure, it’s hard not to be a bit enamored with all the different feeds we use. They’re just fun, right? The thing is, these aren't just cool apps. They are purpose-built addiction systems designed by some of the smartest people in the world to keep you online and scrolling.
Imagine the world's greatest salesperson, who happens to be a coke dealer, following your 14-year-old around to keep them addicted.
This isn’t just a theory. Former Facebook executives have spoken openly about the dopamine feedback loop built into social-media apps. Our brains get a chemical hit every time we get a positive social interaction, and we keep wanting more. A Harvard Medical School researcher recently likened the techniques used by tech companies to that of casinos.
Except in this case, we’re gambling with kids’ brains.
There is a better way
Here are seven resolutions we can all make to help steer social media back on a safe track.
1. We need to personally pull back on tech usage. Delete some apps from our phones and turn others to grey mode. Set an example. We need to police our kids better and help them find alternatives.
2. Big tech companies need to push further than adding a few modest controls. They need to invest in research, preventative care and revamp their products to be less addictive.
3. Marketers need to apply real pressure on the platforms. If it comes down to it, they need to threaten to pull spending from companies that don’t make the right kind of investments.
4. Brands need to dial back on campaigns explicitly designed to incentivize people to rack up likes, shares and other empty digital calories.
5. Marketers need to rethink how they work with influencers. Too many kids are trying to emulate impossibly well-lit and well-paid creators, hoping to live the unboxing life.
6. Kids need the hang space back. They need places to find themselves and be vulnerable. They need to feel good about being weird. Marketers need to invest in new social platforms that embrace these values.
7. Get out. We all need more face time (not Face Time) with humans. Get a coffee, a drink at a bar with peers. Take your kids to a park. Resolve to be more present.
Marketers like to say they are purpose-driven. There is no greater purpose than an unprecedented national health emergency. And that'swhat we're facing, whether we want to admit it or not.
The question is: What do we do about it? We’re not throwing away our phones or deleting all apps. These products aren’t inherently bad. We do need to figure out how to keep what makes them true wonders (connecting people, making their lives easier), while taking serious measures to reducing their addictive natures and rampant toxicity.
Otherwise, we risk losing our kids. And at a certain point, there may be no going back.