Why Facebook Is Dangerous For Kids

The downsides of the emergence of online social networks.



FacebookWhen my husband was a boy, he had a car. It was a Ford Cortina Mark 2, of which, he tells me, he was inordinately proud. He drove it too fast and handled it harshly -- pretty much like any teen driver. Ask him whether kids today drive dangerously, and he’ll tell you he drove exactly the same way. The problem, he says, isn’t that they drive aggressively. The problem is that he drove that way with a Cortina, while today youngsters of his ilk are driving cars with three times the horsepower.

We struggle with this, as a species. We struggle to appreciate that a behavior that works in one context doesn’t necessarily adapt as technology advances; we struggle to extrapolate impact and consequence. Humans have, for example, always fished, but fishing with a pole to feed your family has a very different effect on the environment than fishing with a dragnet to feed an industrial food supply operation. We have always gone to war, but a nuclear weapon doesn’t compare to a bow and arrow.

A similar technological advancement is dramatically affecting the dynamics of teen relationships. Kids have always been cruel to each other. I’d bet, for example, that you have at least one torturous memory from your teen years. You were putting people down, you were watching people get put down, or you were being put down. We spend a lot of our childhood experimenting with social structure and human interaction, figuring out what works, what impresses, how to fit in. (It takes another level of maturity again -- usually one that doesn’t arrive until well after high school -- to realize that fitting in isn’t actually the top prize.)

When I was in middle school, a group of kids used to call me Amazon. Although I wasn’t at all fat by any decent standard, these kids meant it as a mean jab about my weight. And even though I wasn’t fat, I became terrified that I was. I developed a reasonably unhealthy relationship with food and a reasonably miserable attitude towards school.

In the grand scheme of things, my experience wasn’t shockingly bad -- some kids teased me. But that behavior goes on every day, in groups of kids all over the world, and our ability to assess impact and consequence hasn’t kept up with the advancement of technology.

Thanks to sites like Facebook and Snapchat, youth cruelty has access to dragnets instead of fishing poles, nuclear weapons instead of bows and arrows. The words that I was able to wash away in the shower at night can now find a permanent home online, where they can be amplified and shared by others who are emboldened by digital distance from the pain they are inflicting.

Cyberbullying isn’t the only downside of the emergence of online social networks. As grownups, only the tiniest fraction of us have the resources to read, digest, and understand the full implications of the Terms of Use we regularly agree to. Teenagers don’t stand a chance. That’s why Facebook should have different privacy and data policies for teen users, as more than 20 advocacy groups requested of the Federal Trade Commission this week. Today’s teens aren’t any better than the ones from a few decades ago at factoring in how their behavior can affect them in the future, but those of us who grew up without social networks never had to worry about our bosses and colleagues getting access to our youthful indiscretions.

I’m certainly not suggesting that kids shouldn’t be allowed online -- far from it. What I am suggesting is that the Internet is not a linear extension of a television. Cyberbullying is not the same as playground bullying. And we need to be educating kids differently to the way we educated them before these technologies existed.

We have three times the horsepower. We can’t behave the same way we did when all we had was the Mark 2.

Originally published at OnlineSpin.