Our future is written in the minds of our children. Unfortunately, it’s looking like that future will be full of would-be YouTubers and influencers.
Recently, Google was fined $170 million over YouTube’s inappropriate data collection from children. This comes after the video hosting service closely tracked the habits of users watching children’s content. Now, this isn’t any different from what YouTube does with other users, but the Federal Trade Commission takes particular offense at how the website ignored and subverted child privacy laws.
The problem is that children are easily manipulated, and the algorithms that link advertisements to content take full advantage of this fact. However, as much as we see ourselves as discerning adults, we are all indeed vulnerable to the same tactics. The problem that the FTC sees with YouTube’s tactics is that they profited off of unfair tactics. But maybe the problem extends beyond whether a company really earned this or that amount of millions unfairly.
Social media has the power and motivation to be extremely unhealthy to all of us. It’s clear that most people hold onto various forms of social media to some extent. Walking anywhere on campus, you are all but guaranteed to see people with their heads buried in their phones. Certainly, not all of them are just checking their emails or texts; there are plenty of people who cling to social media in one way or another.
I’m not saying any of this in a condescending way, either. I’m just as guilty. After all, this is exactly as these services intend. In the attention economy, retention and obsession are key to success, both for app users and the companies who run them. There’s just so much money up for grabs. This YouTube penalty is evidence of this, in that YouTube couldn’t help itself in chasing after a bit more coin. While this isn’t done maliciously (most companies use some form of automation to order content and ads), it is absolutely done deliberately.
There is a wealth of evidence that this social media addiction — an intentionally cultured addiction — is dangerous, both for us as individuals and as a wider society. Everyone has seen studies that show these apps separate us, lower our self-esteem and overall make us less happy. So why do we let them?
The truth is that the successful social media groups have all managed to proliferate so quickly that we just learned to accept them. If everyone else was willing to give Twitter, Instagram and the like a shot, why shouldn’t I? At the risk of sounding like a pearl-clutching baby boomer, they really snuck in under our noses.
As much as senator Josh Hawley was clowned on when he suggested regulating certain social media features like infinite scroll, I don’t think he was altogether off-base. The relationship we have with technology is worrying, and while people may be aware of this on some level, making it more obvious could go a long way.
At the end of the day, technology is moving fast, certainly too fast for many to keep up with. Parents in particular probably have no idea the depth and implications of the modern internet. But their children do; they just don’t know enough to realize its pitfalls. These addictive features are not core to the experience of the internet. They are just there to algorithmically take advantage of us. And so, politicians must take more steps to curtail some of the tech industry’s more unsavory practices, and regular people should work to think just a bit more about their social media use.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.