Parents this year were introduced to a goblin for the digital era: Momo, a bird-woman with an eerie grin who commanded the children who watched her videos on YouTube to harm themselves. The story turned out to be essentially a hoax, but it went viral in the first place because it seemed to validate a widely held belief: Our kids are in danger because of threats associated with the dark corners of social media and risk of addiction to phones and tablets.
The annual American Family Survey found last fall that “overuse of technology” had risen to the top of the list of concerns for parents of teenagers, above drugs, sexual activity and mental health. Viral headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and books like “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids” are resonating with parents. One of the authors of the original American Academy of Pediatrics “no screens before age 2” rule (it has since been softened) has written a book with the fearsome title “The Death of Childhood.” Screens are his main culprit.
The truth isn’t so simple. Smartphones and social media may be, in fact, transforming the experience of childhood and adolescence in some ways. But the hard (for many adults to hear) truth is that many of technology’s effects on kids have less to do with screen time per se than they do with the decisions grown-ups are making — many of which place children’s privacy at great risk.
First, there’s surveillance. Children are now under intense scrutiny from a young age, from platforms and advertisers, but also parents and other authority figures.
Many public schools use online gradebooks, and sometimes app-based communication systems like Class Dojo. Depending on their settings, these systems allow parents to instantly see the score on every quiz, and a record of every time their child is disciplined or praised. Family dynamics vary; these updates may be the catalyst to an important conversation, an invitation to hover or get overly involved in a child’s progress, or a prelude to harsh punishment.
Even more worrisome is the widespread use of software from large tech platforms like Google in the classroom. Some privacy advocates have expressed concern about how the data collected on students who are required to use these apps and email services to complete assignments might be used.
As I reported for NPR in 2016, GoGuardian, a form of school-based security software, monitors kids’ online searches on school-issued computers. Middle-school students who searched topics related to suicide, even at home, have been referred to mental health services by school webmasters. Benjamin Herold detailed in Education Week how private companies are monitoring student assignments, emails and even social media posts. Students have become accustomed to the surveillance. One wrote his concerns about a classmate acting strangely in a Google doc, and added profanity to make sure it was flagged by the automated system.
Meanwhile, just a few years since it became possible, checking in on your children as they surf the web and stroll to school is in many circles seen as the basic obligation of a responsible parent. The average age at which a child gets her own smartphone has dropped to 10.3 years. In other words, just as kids start to expand their physical boundaries and spend more time with peers, it’s suddenly become standard practice to equip them with a tracking device. The message could not be more mixed: You can spread your wings, sure, but we’ll be banding your ankle, using products like Circle at home and Find My iPhone when you’re out and about.
Then there’s “sharenting.” Today, many children’s social media presence starts with a sonogram, posted, obviously, without consent. One study from Britain found that nearly 1,500 images of the average child had been placed online by their fifth birthday. Parents get a lot of gratification from telling kids’ stories online. Advertisers, and platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, get a lot out of it, too. Baby pics drive clicks. “Millennial moms are the holy grail,” one marketer told me.
It’s less clear what our children have to gain from their lives being broadcast in this way. Stacey Steinberg, a scholar at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, wrote in The Emory Law Reviewthat parents’ rights to free speech and self-expression are at odds with children’s rights to privacy when they are young and vulnerable. “A conflict of interests exists as children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents,” she noted.
This is especially true when the information is potentially damaging. Imagine a child who has behavior problems, learning disabilities or chronic illness. Mom or Dad understandably want to discuss these struggles and reach out for support. But those posts live on the internet, with potential to be discovered by college admissions officers and future employers, friends and romantic prospects. A child’s life story is written for him before he has a chance to tell it himself.
Even if you confine your posts about your children to sunny days and birthday parties, any information you provide about them — names, dates of birth, geographic location — could be acquired by data brokers, companies that collect personal information and sell it to advertisers.
Finally, there’s display and commodification. In 2018, the top earner on YouTube, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy who brought in $22 million by playing with toys. It’s never seemed more accessible to become famous at a wee age, and the type of children who used to sing into a hairbrush in the mirror are often clamoring to start their own channels today.
What’s the harm? In most cases, none. Maybe even some benefits. But there are horror stories, too. YouTube’s algorithms make it easy to discover ever-more-extreme content, and videos starring childrenare no exception. Some channels have been taken down from the platform, and parents have even lost custodyof their children for harassing and humiliating their own children in videos that earned millions of views. Or, you could post a completely innocuous video of your daughter doing cartwheels and a pedophile could comment with a time code of a particular split-second view as a signal to his fellows.
The most egregious abuses are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For every moneymaking influencer, there are millions of less-successful stage parents and wannabes scratching for followers on YouTube and Instagram. They’re out there shoving cameras in children’s faces, using up their free time, killing spontaneity, warping the everyday rituals of childhood into long working shoots.
Forget Momo. When it comes to childhood and technology, we adults are the horror show.