Recently, I watched The Social Dilemma, a “docudrama” that dives into the connection between human psychology, behavioral economics, big data, and emotional wellbeing as it relates to social media companies and how they interact with their users. It is a fascinating and scary watch, and I highly recommend viewing it.
Through interviewing many former social media executives, several of whom are involved with an organization called the Center for Humane Technology, the film’s overarching thesis revolves around the dynamic that the more accurately social media companies are able to predict the actions of their users, the more they are able to maximize advertising revenue. These incentives around monetization result in several negative outcomes. While I have lots of thoughts on the piece, I have found myself thinking most about how we can educate our children to best safely and healthily navigate and combat the most worrying parts of this while also accessing the best aspects of social media.
I am particularly concerned for our Middle and Upper school students. Early adolescents are highly impressionable, and their brain development is such that their decision making is often spontaneous and emotionally driven. This is natural. As they start to move out of childhood and form their own identity and codify their own beliefs, they commonly try out various appearances, ways of speaking, and interests. While it is an important and healthy part of growing up and becoming independent, it also has its downsides. Relatedly, one of the reasons I am passionate about the value of prek-9 school is that our 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds are able to act their age. Were we to have high schoolers as well, too many of our students would try to act 17 since the 17-year-olds are around, and that gives too much opportunity for bad choices during those impressionable years. As it relates to social media and the themes in The Social Dilemma, these ages are also when children often first get phones. The combination of a new device in their hands, an impressionable age, and companies who are incentivized to take advantage of that for their own gain is very dangerous, and that concern is one that I have kept at the top of my mind since viewing the movie.
While we are all susceptible to the dopamine rush that a ping from our phone brings, that is especially true of our young people. So, how do we as a school develop the wherewithal in our students to navigate this in a healthy manner? I do not think there is one answer, but emphasizing several themes throughout their childhood will help. A focus on critical and independent thinking helps children assess the validity of information and learn to make up their own minds. Social emotional learning helps students become more self aware and build self esteem. The more they know who they are and what they like, the more confident they will be. Intellectual stimulation and engaged learning, which stems from an inquiry-based approach that stimulates curiosity helps children develop a wide range of interests. While none of these fully combat the dynamic explained in the movie, they do lay the groundwork for informed and healthy decisions.
On the parent side, it is more tangible. Hold off buying a phone for as long as you can. Keep them out of bedrooms and exclusively to common areas in the home, especially at nighttime. Turn off notifications. Get parental controls to know what apps your child wants to download. Children under 13 are not allowed to have social media accounts for good reason. I advise waiting even longer, until 16. I recognize that our children may not like all (or any) of those guidelines, and certainly you may hear how “everyone has that”, but that is natural for them to complain and feel the pain of perceived loss of social interaction. Their “fear of missing out” is expected and natural. Nevertheless, we are the adults and the parents, and sometimes we need to make decisions that are unpopular but in their best interest. Waiting a little longer and setting strong and reasonable parameters will better allow our children to access the wonderful and transformative parts of technology healthily.