Opinion: California tech giants must lead the way to make social media safer for kids
Do it: It’s not that hard to make social media safer for kids.
At a recent event with teachers and doctors across the country, a child psychiatrist told me that children have started showing up to kindergarten unable to throw a ball or hold a pencil. Their hands lack these abilities, in part because they spend a lot of time in front of screens. Children seem to lose the ability to participate in childhood.
Last year, I leaked to the federal government over 20,000 pages of internal documents from my former employer, Facebook (now Meta). Probably the most shocking revelation was the extent to which Facebook knew its products, Instagram in particular, were harming our children and chose to do nothing about it.
The products that children spend so much time with from an early age are not safe – by design. And it’s in product design, rather than added screen time features, that products for our children can be made much safer.
Instagram’s own studies show that the platform deteriorates the body images of one in three teenage girls. More than 13% of teenage girls say the app contributes to their suicidal or self-harm thoughts.
In response to these horrific revelations, Facebook sent Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri to defend the platform. “We know that more people die than they otherwise would from car crashes, but overall, cars create far more value in the world than they destroy…And I think social media is similar,” he said in a podcast with Recode,
I would remind Mosseri that cars have seat belts. They have airbags. There are speed limits and lower speeds are required in school zones. We need to have infant car seats before we can take our babies home from the hospital. These measures are in place because when we realized how many lives could be saved with such simple yet effective changes, we acted.
Has the auto industry fought against them? Absolutely. And today we see the same fight from Big Tech – with millions of dollars spent on lobbying and misleading advertising.
It is ironic that this resistance to change and innovation comes from the ancestors of innovation. An industry that moved quickly and broke things should be forced to fix what’s broken.
There are known technology fixes that would improve security on the platform, especially for the most vulnerable, like children. But the company’s executives are unwilling to implement these solutions as they chip away at their billion-dollar profits.
Instead of thinking creatively and designing with safety in mind from the start, Big Tech has relied on censoring our speech and entrapping our children with predatory tactics to ensure they scroll the longest time possible. Worse still, it has blamed parents when their children are addicted and depressed.
I am a technologist, but also a pragmatist. I’ve worked at Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and other tech companies, and the truth is, we’ll never regulate at the rate they’re innovating. Instead of trying to regulate the latest algorithmic innovations or stifle free speech, we should demand safety standards in product design.
California’s age-appropriate design code law making its way through the legislature is a step toward creating “safety belts” for our kids on social media. The legislation disables features such as location tracking and prohibits the sale of children’s personal data.
Similar legislation is now in place in the UK, so we know Big Tech is already aware of this.
These measures are not intended to ban social media for our children. It’s about creating social media that promotes the best in humanity and empowers our children to be safe, connect with each other, and learn together. This kind of social media is possible, but we have to design it this way from the start.
California is the birthplace of many of these technologies, and California should take the lead in designing systems that honor our freedom of speech, respect our children’s privacy, and enshrine their rights to online safety. .
Frances Haugen is a former Facebook product manager and an advocate for accountability and transparency in social media. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.