Yes, we should be banning social media for under-16s — big tech does not see us as humans (2024)

Welcome to The Friday Fight. Join us ringside for our new weekly debate series where we invite two writers to make their case on a hotly contested topic.

In our inaugural debate we are tossing up the question: should children under the age of 16 be banned from using social media? The idea has bipartisan political support with backing from both Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton, but has been question by experts.

In the affirmative corner we have Charlotte Mortlock, former political reporter and founder of Hilma’s Network, which aims to get women into the Liberal Party. And arguing the negative, Crikey’s very own associate editor Cam Wilson.

If something is free, you are the product. Big tech is not a charity. They are not providing us all with free access to their platforms because they want us to be “connected”. They don’t see us as humans, they see us as products, data and engagement. All of which equate to dollars. That is literally their only incentive.

We have just run one of the most inhumane social experiments in history without any guardrails in place, because big tech told us to. We sold a generation of children to make big tech rich. Should we keep sacrificing the young and indefensible, now that we know how harmful it is, or pretend it’s out of our hands?

US surgeon general Vivek Murthy recently said: “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double theriskof anxiety and depression symptoms.”

Rolling Stone just did an exposé on how Snapchat has been fueling a teen opioid crisis with drugs being sold on their platform. TikTok users with eating disorders are 4,000 times more likely to be shown harmful appearance-related videos. Instagram’s algorithms are promoting a paedophile network selling child sexual abuse material.

The very people who created Facebook and know it inside out believe this too. Former Facebook vice president for growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, has banned his children from the very platform he helped create, saying they “aren’t allowed to use that sh*t”. He knows his children would merely be used as a money-making product.

Typically, I believe in small government and less regulation. But that doesn’t extend to children. Smoking. Alcohol. Driving. Sex. Heck, even voting. When your brain is still developing and maturing, frankly, you are not equipped to make decisions that could be dangerous to you or ruin your life, which is why we try to mitigate those options where possible. A young, fresh, malleable brain is plainly no match for the manipulation waged by big tech to keep you addicted to a machine so they can sell you products you don’t need. Even a fully-formed adult brain falls under its spell.

We don’t even let children decide what they eat for every meal because they would make bad choices. So isn’t it profoundly reckless to hand them the world in their pocket and expect them to make responsible decisions that are in their best interests?

Jaron Lanier, my personal hero and perhaps the smartest person in the universe, was at the helm of Silicon Valley when it took off. He has been dubbed the godfather of virtual reality and a pioneer of the internet. He also wants you to quit social media.

“When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no-one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard,” he wrote.

The laziest people in society right now will say, “we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, social media is here to stay”. What a defeatist, apathetic argument.

Just as Lanier pointed out, we didn’t stop painting houses, we created lead-free paint. Necessity is the mother of invention, and e-safety is about to be supreme. Dare to dream for a moment that maybe a social-media-free device could one day be a reality. Oh! That day is already here. Strap in for an unsponsored plug.

We’re all a bit institutionalised by Apple and Google so it’s hard to imagine alternative devices, but they’ve done diddly-squat to meet safety concerns so I’m pleased to see other options coming in thick and fast. Pinwheel has been created for parents who want to be able to contact their kids, or their kids to be able to contact them, but want to protect them from the risks of the internet. The phone is controlled entirely by the parent, has GPS and Spotify, but no web browsing or social media apps.

There have been some great conversations about exactly how the social media giants would verify the age of a user and whether it was even possible to do so. I’ll say off the bat that I don’t believe this is the government’s responsibility to solve. Governments create legislation, it is private companies’ responsibility to meet them. Given the insane profit margins and big brains that work for them, I think they’ll manage just fine. If we still can’t figure it out, I nominate (without his consent) former NSW minister and unparalleled digital service guru, Victor Dominello, to solve the problem.

One of the things parents struggle with most when preventing their kids accessing social media is their children guilting them (perhaps rightly!) that they will be exiled and left out if they are the only one without a phone. If it’s illegal, that should do a fairly good job of bolstering parents’ argument. “Oh but Sally’s mum let her have a fake account”. Great. Sally’s mum is a criminal. Night night.

DING! DING! DING! CRIKEY EDITORS DECLARE MORTLOCK HAS OFFICIALLY PASSED HER ALLOCATED WORD COUNT

It would be remiss of me to write this piece without making a predictable (if you know me) rant about algorithms. Banning social media for kids doesn’t make it a safe space for adults. Social media algorithms are ruining the world. They are eroding our democracy by first siloing us and then polarising us to the fringes of politics. They are dividing young boys and girls by feeding us the manosphere or anorexic women. They are leading paedophiles to young children. They are making men more abusive.

This is a digital drug causing society to splinter and individuals to lose their minds. Using algorithms against children must be illegal and for adults they should at least be transparent and opt-in. I have infinite hatred for this mechanism, the damage it has done to our world and immense fear for what more it can still destroy if we let it.

The internet was supposed to make everything feel bigger, but it has made us claustrophobic and inundated with fear. It was supposed to create a sense of community, but it is ripping us apart as every aspect of our life is pushed into a virtual reality.

DING! DING! DING! CRIKEY EDITORS REMIND MORTLOCK SHE HAS NOW OFFICIALLY PASSED MAXIMUM WORD COUNT BY MORE THAN 200 WORDS

I’ll finish by quoting Jaron Lanier one more time who I recommend everyone reads up on if they want a reality check of what we are wilfully partaking in.

“I thought this idea of trying to make everything free in exchange for advertising would inevitably lead to a manipulative society … That you could set up a computer to be like an automated behaviourist to manipulate people and it would eventually become so cheap to do that you could create an insane, dysfunctional, unhappy society pretty easily.”

Do you agree with Charlotte or with Cam? Should we ban under-16s from social media, or do we need to take a different approach? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

Yes, we should be banning social media for under-16s — big tech does not see us as humans (2024)
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