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How Facebook targets children and teenagers, and what parents need to know about it

Social media platforms use their algorithms in hopes of attracting customers for life.

PORTLAND, Maine — The paradoxes of social media are no secret. Platforms such as Facebook can unite and divide, lift up and tear down, inspire and inflame.

In recent weeks a lot of attention has been paid to how FB and its subsidiary, Instagram, target children and teenagers. Rich Brooks from Flyte Media in Portland offered some perspective on what’s going on and why the stakes are so high. Here are the talking points he provided.

Can you give us a quick overview of the Facebook whistleblower story?

An ex-employee at FB recently released a lot of internal documents that showed that FB knew that Instagram is toxic to teens, and teen girls especially.

Teen girls often go on the platform and feel worse about themselves, being shown videos of ultra-fit and thin women. There was even a small percentage of teens who experienced suicidal thoughts that they traced back to IG.

FBs own researchers seemed to identify that the problems were more specific to IG than to social media in general, and some of what made it more toxic was at the core of what makes IG IG.

This was happening while they were trying to launch an IG for kids, something that has now been delayed but according to IG, something they are still planning on doing.

The documents also show that FB, although it's aware of these problems, had done little to date to fix them and downplay them in public, including Mark Zuckerberg's testimony on Capitol Hill.

Is it just Facebook and Instagram?

No, recently Congress brought the CEOs of SnapChat, TikTok, and YouTube to Capitol Hill. What's interesting about these three platforms is they are less social than FB or IG. They're more platforms for creating and consuming content. You're not going there to catch up with friends.

YouTube, owned by Google, has a version called YT for Kids, which claims to be safe for children. However, there have been ongoing problems with inappropriate content showing up there.

TikTok has an incredibly powerful algorithm that can pick up on what one data scientist called "vulnerabilities" in users, and continually feed them content that may not be helpful and can even be dangerous. It's not that people are enjoying these videos, but they can't seem to stop watching them.

Also, despite its own checks and balances, TikTok is serving up content about sex, drug use, and violence to kids and underage teens.

Why are social media platforms so interested in engaging and targeting kids and teens?

They're looking for growth. They hope that by hooking younger users, they'll be gaining customers for life. In fact, one of the more chilling quotes I read was from an IG researcher who was explaining why no one was listening to their data: "You're standing between them and their bonuses."

Why is the focus on kids and teens? Doesn't this impact all age groups?

These age groups are considered to be more heavily influenced. Teens especially are trying to figure out who they are. They often turn to social media to understand themselves, but also to compare themselves to others. While this isn't necessarily good or bad, the powerful algorithms of these platforms can make for serious problems.

What can parents do?

I talked to my dad, Dr. Robert Brooks, who is a clinical psychologist. He suggests that it varies by kid. For very young children, 4-8, parents might choose not to let them watch any of these videos. Even for older kids and teens, parents should be creating limits and boundaries on social media just like anything else. However, it will be difficult or even impossible to keep older kids and teens off these sites.

Instead, families should speak with their kids and ask questions. Build up the kid's critical thinking around what they're seeing, who's saying it, and what the algorithm may be feeding them. Remind them that you're always available to talk on any subject, and there's a lot more to life than social media.

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