Many years ago, when I was in law school, my friends had a term for when I inadvertently (or perhaps sometimes intentionally) instigated a firestorm of an argument over dinner or drinks – we called it a brushfire. Now middle aged, I thought those days were behind me; I’m genuinely content to listen and remain silent, even when I disagree. It’s partly meditative Zen, which I’ve tried to cultivate with intention, and it’s partly just being tired of all the fighting. Last week, however, I returned to my younger, feistier form. It was unfortunate. Prompted by the pervasive news reports and commentaries regarding a former Facebook employee who released documents showing that the company ignored its own research which proved that Instagram (owned by Facebook) wasn’t good for teenage girls’ self-esteem, I lit the flame as soon as the waiter stepped away:
“So what do y’all think about the whole Facebook/Instagram craziness? I hate to be a contrarian” — completely not true, I was trying to be provocative – “but it all seems overblown to me.” The fireworks ensued immediately. First, there was this from my dear friend Jennie. (Her name has been changed to protect the innocent; mine has not because I am not.)
“Are you kidding?! I am furious! I have a teenage daughter. The fact that this company knew they were harming girls and intentionally buried the information with plans to ignore it is unconscionable.”
“Unconscionable? Really? Are you kidding? This is corporate America. We have a long history of this sort of behavior. In fact, the entire fashion industry was and essentially remains predicated on promoting an ideal of feminine beauty that wreaks havoc with young women’s body image. Let me be clear: I’m not condoning what Facebook or Instagram are doing – but long before digital posts, there were dangerous publications that did the very same thing. There is nothing new here, other than the modality.”
“Maybe, but at least the fashion industry has evolved – at least somewhat. Zuckerberg and the other high-tech tycoons are a problem. From publishing fake news that promotes polarization and instigates hate, to engaging in this crap that hurts our daughters — the government needs to regulate these companies.”
“Well, I’m not necessarily averse to regulation, but I don’t understand what that would look like in this case. The private sector will almost always prioritize profits, no matter the harm, until they get caught – think back to the Ford Pinto, for God’s sake, and there are plenty of examples today, the fossil fuel industry among many others. Here, however, the issue is both more complicated and less. For example, I understand the emotional desire to finger-point, especially at Facebook, but what specific content are we curtailing? And rather than rely on government, why can’t parents do the regulating?”
Jennie was annoyed. Angry actually. She took a large swig of her Sancerre: “Look, raising teenagers is hard enough, especially girls. And now we have to deal with technology and social media that erode kids’ sense of self-worth and increase their anxiety and depression. It’s just too much! Let’s talk about something else. Please.”
I should have moved on, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. “Wait, one last thing, I promise — because I think we finally agree on something. I too think most social media is mostly a nightmare – and that it’s even worse for kids. Remember, I’m also a father with two girls – so BuzzFeed and Tik Tok are our daily bread! In fact, I recall reading an essay by a psychologist who works with seriously disaffected teenagers at one of those wilderness retreats, saying the first thing she does with her patients is take away their digital devices. After going through addict-like withdrawal, the teens start to get better – because being disconnected is the first step in their road to recovery. But . . .”
The waiter returned with salads, so I paused. And to Jennie’s delight, I didn’t continue; because if I had, the conversation would have turned messy again. It turns out that the wilderness therapist’s anecdotes were just that, anecdotes. Like Jennie, I want to believe that technology in general and social media in particular are harmful to our kids. That’s why I forwarded to several friends this essay from the New York Times, “For Teen Girls, Instagram is a Cesspool.” But then I came across this essay, also from the Times, “Does Instagram Harm Girls, No One Actually Knows.” Which is it?! Well, science is impartial to preferred narratives. And according to many experts, the objective data is uncertain.
Every generation, adults lament the latest dark externality that negatively impacts our children – it’s been radio, television, comic books and video games. Today, the evil is the Internet. Except that we know it’s not. At least in moderation and with proper oversight. The lurid, inappropriate, violent, hurtful and offensive will always be there. As will the purveyors of such things whose priorities are ratings, subscribers, and dollars. That’s not righteous indignation, it’s just our market reality. So, to me practical acceptance is not the same as passive acquiescence: Facebook and Instagram will continue doing just who we fear they are; in turn, we must continue parenting so our kids become who we hope they are. It’s tireless work, and the currency of the pay-off is different, but it’s so worth it.