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Opinion We can no longer leave children alone to face this unregulated tech world

The public health expert says we cannot rely on tech companies to regulate this new profit-driven ecosystem.


SENIOR MANAGEMENT AT social media site TikTok has responded to an RTÉ Prime Time investigation which revealed that content connected to suicide and self-harm is readily available to a new account within 20 minutes of browsing.

The Prime Time Investigation further identified that by the end of an hour of scrolling, recommended TikTok content was showing a stream of videos almost exclusively related to depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts to users it believed to be 13 years old.

TikTok management stated that the issue will be dealt with ‘as a matter of urgency.’

Head of Public Policy at TikTok, Susan Moss told the Oireachtas Children’s Committee this week that while she had not seen the programme, she had assured the regulator, Coimisiún na Meán, that the allegations were being examined.

‘I just do want to stress that we are committed to continuously looking at this area and how we can improve, how we can strengthen our processes, particularly for younger users,’ Ms Moss said.

At the same time, a study from Dublin City University’s anti-bullying centre reports that teenage boys are being bombarded with misogynist content on social media platforms such as TikTok and YouTube due to algorithms that amplify anti-feminist and other extremist content.

Age verification

While TikTok management stress that they are committed to ‘improving and strengthening processes, particularly for young users,’ the evidence says otherwise.

At a meeting earlier this year between Education Minister Norma Foley and representatives from companies including TikTok, Meta, Google, Microsoft, Three, Vodafone and Tesco; the introduction of robust age verification to ensure that social media services are not used by children under the age of 13 was discussed.

When mobile services providers present at the meeting were asked whether they supported the principle of parents not buying smartphones for their children while in primary school, the answer was all too predictable. ‘That wasn’t forthcoming at this point in time, but they gave a commitment to engage again on this matter.’

Child and teenage social media users are big business. A recent study led by Harvard School of Public Health (2023) estimated the number of users on social media platforms in the US and how much revenue is attributable to them.

The study reported that in 2022, YouTube had 49.7 million US-based users under age 18; TikTok, 18.9 million; Snapchat, 18 million; Instagram, 16.7 million; Facebook, 9.9 million; and X (formerly Twitter), 7 million.

Revenue collectively generated by the platforms in ad revenue amounted to nearly $11bn: $2.1bn from users aged 12 and under and $8.6 bn from users aged 13-17.

Erosion of community

In the end, it all boils down to a roller coaster of money achieved by keeping young users hooked into social media content. These users are too valuable for companies to even consider limiting access – everything that suggests they might is a smokescreen to obfuscate or delay the process.

Canadian physician, expert on addiction stress and child development, and author of ‘The Myth of Normal,’ Gabor Maté states that increasingly intolerable economic and social pressures on parents these days along with the erosions of community ties, means that children and youth are continuously exploited for the glory of the consumer market. He says:

We need to put aside blaming parents and take a good hard look at the challenge of raising children in a socially toxic environment.

Factors that make raising children hazardous include violence, poverty, economic pressures, disruption of relationships, nastiness, despair, depression, paranoia and alienation – all the things that demoralise families and communities.

‘High on the list is the departure of adults from the lives of kids. This radical disruption of evolutionary norms is taken for granted to the point where we barely even notice it. Worse, we mistake it for the natural state of things.’

The consequence of this weakening of family ties is that kids must seek their attachment needs elsewhere.

‘Children like the young of many species, must attach to someone in their lives; their neurophysiology demands it. Absent a reliable attachment figure, they experience fear and disorientation. Their brain wiring will go, well, haywire.’

Many children these days lie under the shadow of peer rejection, mockery, or bullying — or may themselves become bullies – all exaggerated by the toxic content of social media and the withdrawal of constant parental presence and attachment as peer groups supersede the central role of parents.

‘Unfortunately, today’s children are subject to more (parental) separation and more peer interaction than ever before. The result is a significant loss of feeling as the young brains’ defensive apparatus becomes stuck in an effort to defend… against a sense of vulnerability that is too overwhelming.’

Critically, Dr Maté explains that when children become invulnerable, they cease to relate to life as a place of infinite possibility and to the world as a welcoming and nurturing arena for self-expression.

‘The invulnerability imposed by peer orientation imprisons children in their limitations and fears. No wonder so many of them these days are being treated for depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Maté suggests that the shutdown of vulnerable feelings reinforces the sense of emptiness, fosters boredom, impairs intimacy, undermines curiosity and fuels the demand for distraction from the present moment with anything from unrelenting background noise, hazardous social situations and behaviours, a hunger for products and the pursuit of escape through substances.

The author cites two parts to the digital war on parent/ child attachment bonds – the compulsive use of digital devices by young children and their compulsive use by adults in their presence.

The dopamine hits

Dr Shimi Kang, specialist in adolescent addiction and author of The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World suggests that what is lost is the release of bonding and mood-regulating brain chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins present in the cerebral circuits of both parent and child when they lock eyes in attuned responsive connection.

“Right now, we have mothers who are on their phone while they’re nursing or giving an infant a phone during a diaper change. The diaper change used to be this whole dynamic experience between the caregiver and the infant. You’d have to find a way to get them to sit still, and now you just give them a phone and they lie quietly.

“You can go into any restaurant and see that many, many children are being fed in front of an iPad or computer. You see it all over the place. The phone is so attractive to that young brain.”

Dr Kang suggests that the chemical response to this intimate bonding connection is the key to long-term happiness and success.

When parents don’t engage because they or their child is online, “The unintended but wounding message to the child is, ‘You don’t matter.”

Have we reached the critical juncture where the cultural mores that tolerate children and young adults as well as parents being constantly online must now be challenged?

Tech companies are not motivated to take action that will impede profit margins and market share. In the absence of robust legislation, parents must collectively now take charge.

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood.

Dr Catherine Conlon
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