- - Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Until 2014, when Facebook was just ten years old, the company had a famous motto coined by its founder Mark Zuckerberg: Move fast and break things.

In a sense, the catchphrase captured the swing-for-the-fences, gambling-style culture that led to Facebook’s rapid rise from start-up to global tech behemoth. 

But today, the company has a new bet. It’s betting on our kids, and it doesn’t seem to care what gets broken in the process. 

For those following the unfolding bombshell of Facebook’s leaked internal research reported by the Wall Street Journal, the past week has been stunningly eye-opening and utterly banal. 

In testimony before Congress this week, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen stated that the company’s products “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer,” she accused, “but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”

Haugen’s testimony follows last week’s fifth installment of the Journal’s “Facebook Files” investigation. The latest release highlights Facebook’s own research, outlining its ever-expanding, cradle-to-grave product ambitions.

Facebook’s team lays out two roadmaps in a deceptively bland chart: one labeled “TODAY” stops at age 13, while a chart under the header “IN THE FUTURE” outlines targeted engagement starting at zero. That’s right - zero.

Let’s be honest - this shouldn’t surprise us. And yet, to see it laid out in such stark terms - a global tech behemoth suggesting infancy as the new target customer starting line - is a wake-up call for anyone who cares about kids, and it’s evidence that the invasion is just beginning.

While testifying before the Senate last week, Facebook’s head of global safety, Antigone Davis, underscored several times that “children under the age of 13 are not allowed on Instagram or Facebook.” Yet the calculated PR response, placed against Facebook’s own documents, seemed like more of a wink-and-nod than actual acknowledgment.

The problem is an existential one in the halls of Facebook. This year, Facebook reached 2.89 billion active users, representing over one-third of the human race. But Facebook’s success has created a critical growth problem, and recent reporting reveals that Facebook understands this problem extensively. Its answer? Kids are the new frontier.

Facebook has referred to its moves to reach younger audiences as “Big bets,” and using gambling as a metaphor seems more than appropriate. A flood of research has emerged in recent years, signaling warning signs related to the developmental and mental health consequences of screen time and social media on young kids and adolescents. Even tech leaders across silicon valley, including Zuckerberg himself, have made changes in their own homes.

And yet, for your kids, the concern is an afterthought to conquest. Facebook has again seen profit as primary over protecting kids. Or maybe it’s just worth the gamble.

For anyone who may have held out hope that Facebook or any Big Tech giants could indeed act in the best interest of families and kids, this week should place a nail in the coffin of those hopes. 

The now-famous 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma put a clear spotlight on this issue that’s now unfolding in real-time. “We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary. Especially for younger generations,” says computer scientist Jaron Lainer in the film. “In that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person who’s paying to manipulate those two people.”

As a society, we have to start asking ourselves what we want for the future of connection and who should be the broker. As the Founder and CEO of a family technology company, I spend a lot of time thinking about what tech can - and can’t - do for families. And also, how so much of our “solutions” today undercut parents. Let’s be clear - the technology itself isn’t the enemy. It’s the insatiable data hoarding, profiling algorithms that drive the business model of Big Tech companies like Facebook and put kids in the crosshairs. This week shows it’s not this way by accident but by design. 

There’s a growing outcry from parents, educators, activists, health experts, and more. This week, it’s reached the halls of Congress in a fresh way with rejuvenated support for the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act introduced by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA). While legislation like this is important, the real change lies in the hands of consumers to demand better design for solutions that put families first. 

Facebook’s quest for the minds of our kids may be just beginning. But so is the revolution that’s demanding something better. 

• Russell York is the Founder and CEO of Denver-based family tech start-up COSMO Technologies, a design, and manufacturing company building connection solutions to help keep kids safe and families connected.

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