Facebook is after our children’s eyeballs, which should surprise no one. In December last year, Facebook launched ‘Messenger Kids’ for 6 – 12 year-olds; in May they ignored a petition signed by 21,000 child health advocates asking them to scrap it (Guardian, 2018).
Facebook tells us that their app is designed with the help of ‘experts’ and gives parents ‘control’. Messenger for Kids decorates the screen with bright digital splashes, as if the children have been busy painting. (I prefer to think of the splashes as the vomit of billions of parents who find this marketing nauseating.)
Everyone knows that social media is addictive and designed to be so! Several high profile statements have been made by Silicon Valley insiders on how these products are designed to be habit-forming. Sean Parker (first President of Facebook – quoted in my title), and Tristan Harris (ex-Google Design Ethicist) have both described how social media companies deliberately exploit animal behaviour patterns first documented by Skinner in the 1930’s and taught in basic Psychology courses in American universities.
The most powerful behaviourist tactic employed by social media to addict us is the ‘variable reward’. Harris explains the ploy clearly – “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.” (Tristan Harris, 2016) That is what happens with ‘likes’ on Facebook -sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t, which makes you want more and more.
Facebook also relies on painful emotion to keep us hooked. Nir Eyal, a serpentile writer who calls himself “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology,” speaks enthusiastically on how “negative emotions” are the “most frequent internal triggers”, which are “critical to forming these long term habits.” (Ted Talk, 2015) Eyal goes on to quip that “depressed people check e-mail more.” So carefree about manipulating the unhappiness of others for his own financial gain – what a sweetie! We are compelled by our worst feelings: algorithms feed us news that will make us furious, because the algorithm knows that we are more likely to click on stuff if we’re angry; we feel lonely, so we have a look on Facebook.
Facebook know that we know they addict us on purpose, which is why they have not included overtly addictive features on their kids app – no “like” buttons. Thus it appears as if Facebook have designed the app purely out of love for humanity: so that little Tilly and Oceana can wear digital cat masks and gossip about school.
There is no charge for Messenger Kids; it has also been aggressively marketed. Sound suspicious? Of course it is! So, what’s in it for Facebook? Property. Our data is Facebook’s property. And now they own detailed data about our children too. If you read the small print it tells you: your child’s “registration details”, “content and communications” as well as “activity” will be collected. And Facebook, “may share the information we collect in Messenger Kids within the family of companies that are part of Facebook”. Also, “If the ownership or control of all or part of Messenger Kids changes, we may transfer information to the new owner.” (Facebook)
Facebook profit from selling data. The companies that buy the data then control personalised advertising and newsfeeds for those on real Facebook. Third parties to whom Facebook sell data decide what we see; the third parties are able therefore – by algorithm or deliberate design – to manipulate us. Sandy Parakilas (an ex-operations manager on the platform team at Facebook) urged in the New York Times (Nov, 2017): “Facebook needs to be regulated more tightly, or broken up so that no single entity controls all of its data. The company won’t protect us by itself…”Jaron Lanier – American computer philosophy writer – encourages everyone to “delete all social media accounts right now”; on Channel Four News (June, 2018) Lanier explains that social media “leeches your free will…makes the world a little darker because you’re not perceiving reality clearly anymore you’re being manipulated.”
It is murky how unnamed third parties may be using our children’s data: there are no ads or newsfeeds on Kids Messenger. But it is certain that Facebook are priming children for complete Facebook addiction as soon as they turn 13.
Facebook pretend in their advertising that they are just helping kids to play. The word ‘play’ is used twice in the 1 minute and 21 second official promotional video for this app. My first response was to think, ‘what do you mean ‘play’? They’re just on their phones!’ Then I remembered my daughter was talking on a pretend mobile phone from the age of three – a spoon, an envelope, anything she could grab off the table and hold up to her ear. She was playing.
Kids on Facebook Messenger are playing at what will go on to occupy much of their adult lives. Lev Vygotski saw play as a way children develop: through play they move towards what they will become – “the play-development relationship can be compared to the instruction-development relationship.” (Vygotski, 1978) His insight is relevant. Now children can play at Facebook, until they are on Facebook for real; Facebook knows it is invaluable to catch them early: by playing at it from a young age, children make using Facebook part of who they are.
My six-year old finds it ‘annoying’ when a child turns up to a party or wedding and won’t play with her because they are on a phone. But she also feels excluded from all the fun she imagines she could be having if we’d let her have a phone like ‘everyone else in my class’. I dread the day when she also feels excluded from social media – which is beginning to replace real human interaction for children too.
I want her to develop relationships in real-life, not online; I do not want Facebook to sell her data or force-feed her with personalised news and ads. And I have a horrid image in my mind of her left alone in the real world because all the other children have disappeared into a silicon labyrinth.