By Jonathon Van Maren
In his recent book Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media, tech expert Chris Martin pinpoints the beginning of the digital age as 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web and thus transformed human civilization. The internet arrived just as Bill Gates and Microsoft made computers accessible to the masses, and in 1991 Microsoft sold four million copies of its 3.0 operating system the first year it became available. In 1995, Windows 95 sold 40 million. Home computers and the internet arrived together. Nothing would ever be the same, and nobody realized just how radically everything would change.
Social media followed shortly thereafter. First there was GeoCities, then Friendster, and then MySpace—which refused to throw in with Mark Zuckerberg when he approached them twice in 2005, and promptly faded as Facebook became the global owner of our social connections. Facebook bought Instagram, which arrived as smartphones transferred the desktop to our pockets and perpetually in front of our faces, in 2012 for a billion dollars. By 2018, it was worth an estimated 100 billion. Other platforms followed—Linkedin, Snapchat, TikTok. There are more, but these dominate the buying and selling of our most precious commodity—our time.
There are few now who would deny that this colonization of our lives by global mega-corporations has been incredibly destructive. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff detailed how our behavior is manipulated and our privacy eliminated in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power; Nancy Jo Sales detailed the skyrocketing suicides and pervasive mental illness afflicting teens in American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers; in The Atlantic last year, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted that Facebook had likely “harmed millions of girls,” and advocated that the government step in to counter the hypnotic Pied Piper power of Big Tech.
Haidt believes that the pandemic of mental illness provably caused by social media warrants government intervention. He proposes three solutions: lawmakers should pass legislation forcing Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms to give academic researchers access to their data; lawmakers should strengthen the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in order to raise the age at which “internet adulthood” is reached (and children can legally hand over their privacy and data) to at least 16 years, while giving more power to parents; and finally, parents should “work with local schools to establish a norm: Delay entry to Instagram and other social media platforms until high school.” According to Haidt: “Right now, families are trapped.”
Ohio senatorial candidate (and author of Hillbilly Elegy) J.D. Vance has been saying much the same thing. A nation that allows neuroscientists making six figure salaries to addict kids to apps that ruin their lives, he told me by phone from the campaign trail, is a nation with badly skewed priorities. Like Haidt, he believes we should give parents more power—we could legislate a ban on porn for kids under 18, for example, or simply do what Haidt suggests and step between parents and Big Tech, which wants young eyeballs to monetize the attention of children even if they have to rewire immature minds and steal their childhoods to do it. Other countries have taken these steps, Vance told me. Why not America?