Fireworks exploded first thing Tuesday morning and it was amazing: Twitter was crackling with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg blasting Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, and Warren doubled down on a pledge to break up the social media behemoth to protect us all from the monopolistic company’s darker side.
The smackdown began with leaked audio of a Zuckerberg meeting with Facebook employees in which the CEO said it would “suck” if Warren were elected. Zuck vowed to aim the full force of his company against her as president: “If someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”
Warren slammed back: “What would really ‘suck,’” she tweeted, “is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”
Meanwhile, all I could think about was the kids.
Our kids. Your kids. Everyone’s kids. The high school kid who took his life last month in Tennessee due to cyberbullying.
Kids are walking around middle schools and high schools with smartphones and apps that have become a bully’s best friend. Live grenades, you might even say. And all we parents are doing, it seems, is watching, helplessly, as Big Tech keeps getting bigger and bigger while our kids get sucked deeper and deeper into the diabolical depths of their profit-making devices and apps.
Sure, parents try to monitor their kids’ social media use. But this can’t be all we do. Not with kids like Channing Smith becoming casualties.
Just hours before Zuck vs. Warren, the story of the Tennessee high schooler’s death was making the rounds nationally. He took his own life after being humiliated by cyberbullies, his family says. Channing was distraught after a screenshot of him kissing another boy was disseminated, unbeknownst to him.
The youngster’s story was on my mind from the night before when, over a cup of morning coffee, the Twitter face-off unfolded between Zuckerberg and Warren. It felt timely.
Companies like Facebook, which also owns Instagram, control so much of our online lives, our privacy, our personal time, and with very little accountability or mechanisms to flag or halt increasingly toxic behavior. (Just how big is Facebook, you ask? Its shares are valued at $500 billion, with a ‘b.’)
From the way it handles user data to its effectively allowing its platform to be used for meddling in U.S. elections, there are many major concerns about this company. Just as there are concerns about Google and so many other digital companies that have poked into our lives in ways large and small.
But as a parent, one concern rises above all others: What is all of this doing to our kids? And when, if ever, do we say the harm is becoming too great to ignore, whether it’s digital addiction or bullying or being victimized in some other way by the tech universe?
The digital world, in just a matter of a few years, has ballooned into a virtually lawless place. And our children are in the line of fire, whether through the exponential spread of child pornography, as a New York Times investigation recently documented, or through soul-crushing cyberbullying, which also appears to be on the rise.
Pew Research Center recently found that a majority of U.S. teens have experienced at least one of the following: “Online cyberbullying, including name-calling, being subject to false rumors, receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for, having explicit images of themselves shared without their consent, physical threats, or being constantly asked about their location and activities in a stalker-ish fashion by someone who is not their parents.”
Even local police can see the uptick.
“The technology today and what’s out there with all the different apps and how they can hide their identity and spoof different numbers, it’s crazy,” said Deputy Chief Ted Caiola, whose Upper Gwynedd Township police department is one of several feeding the North Penn School District in Montgomery County. We spoke Tuesday. He said kids come to realize, “‘Hey, look, I can do this and not get caught.’”
In Tredyffrin Township, the veteran cop in charge of police in that Chester County community agreed that officers are summoned to many more bullying calls in today’s digital age than they ever did before the advent of social media. Michael Beaty would know; he’s been a suburban law enforcement officer for 32 years
“We’ve had to adapt with the growth of technology and find a way for us to continue doing our job,” said Beaty, who became police superintendent in Tredyffrin two years ago.
As tech companies worry about their hegemony, parents should step up our own worrying game. Pew found that less bullying happens if kids spend less time online. That’s a good start.
Maria Panaritis is a national award-winning columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.