How Social Media and Digital Technology is Impacting Childhood & What to do About It

Josh Golin - social media apps

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Apr 6, 2022

A conscious decision made more than a decade ago is still paying dividends for Josh Golin, his wife and family.

“It really started at birth, and our desire to follow the American Academy of Paediatrics recommendation of no screen time for children under the age of two, which even at that time was somewhat unusual,” says Golin, father of a teenager. “Most parents weren’t following that recommendation.”

The Golin family remained steadfast as their daughter got older.

“We noticed that she seemed to be really good at playing by herself and entertaining herself without screens,” Golin told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “And so when she turned two, we thought, she’s not asking for screens yet, why introduce this complication. So we just kept going. And then we started introducing a little bit of TV when she got to be around four or five, and occasional movies. But we still kept it really, really limited. And she wasn’t clamouring for it, so it was somewhat easy to do that.”


Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is the executive director of fair play, a nonprofit organization focused on commercialism in childhood. As a watchdog fairplay monitors how children are marketed to by various companies and organizations. Josh Golan has been with fairplay since 2003. He is also the father of a team. He joins us today from Boston, Massachusetts. Josh, thank you so much for being here.

Thanks so much for having me here.

So I’d like to dig into a bit of your personal story to start things off, you and your wife have made a conscious decision and effort in terms of keeping your 13 year old daughter off screens and off social media. Take us through how you went about orchestrating it and how you’re going about enforcing and sustaining that?

Sure. So you know, it really started at birth, and our desire to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no screen time for children under the age of two. And which even at that time was somewhat unusual, most parents weren’t following that recommendation. And we noticed that she seemed to be really good at playing by herself and entertaining herself without screens. And so when she turned to, we thought, She’s not asking for screens yet why introduced this complication. So we just kept going. And then we started introducing a little bit of TV when she got to be, I would say, around four, or five, and occasional movies. But we still kept it really, really limited. And, and she wasn’t clamoring for it. So it was somewhat easy to do that she loved to read by herself, she loved to play with her stuffed animals. As she’s gotten older, it has certainly gotten harder. And she obviously has a lot of a fair amount of screen time these days, she doesn’t have her own phone, which is unusual. And she doesn’t have any social media accounts. But one of the things that we did was, we talked to other parents when I would say when she was like in third grade, and we talked about our desire to hold off phones as long as possible. And so, and other parents joined us in that. And so most of our friends at this point have phones, but there was a lot of delay. So there wasn’t as much pressure early because we had these kind of community agreements. And even now, I think that she’s in a cohort of peers, where they certainly spend a lot of time online, but she doesn’t have as much FOMO as she might as if they were on social media as much more. I suspect, as she continues to get older, that it’s going to be much harder, and that she will get a phone at some point. And she will do on social media. For us. It’s at this point, we feel like the what she’s missing out on which those feelings of feeling left out, are not as strong as our concerns of what she would encounter and how that social media would change her. So we’ve made the decision to stay where we are. But when we think that she’s going to be harmed more by not being on it by then by being on it will reverse our decision. But But yeah, a lot, I really want to emphasize that started early like be those screen free early years allowed her to develop some inner resources, where she knows how to entertain herself without instantly turning to a screen which, you know, most adults, including myself have a really hard time doing.

Absolutely. And I love how you tell that story. Because it’s not just one thing you did, there’s several things going on there. The the decision to keep her off screens was foundational in those younger years, but also surrounding yourself with like minded parents, for parents who may be or in the opposite group who listened to you and think, I don’t know how he’s done that in 2022, how he and his wife have achieved that that’s quite something. What do you hear from those parents in terms of their pain points and how they struggle with managing screens and devices with teens and young adults in their families?

Well, you know, one thing that’s interesting, as I have never heard from a parent, I wish we had gotten my child a smartphone earlier. Every single parent I’ve ever talked to says, I wish we had held off longer and so I really you know, that is of all the decisions you’re gonna make. That is probably the one with the most implications. And and so I think that that’s just something to keep in mind. But in terms of the pain points, what we hear is huge battles over how much time is being spent feeling like their children are disconnected from them that even then they’re in the same room like they can’t get their attention. A lot of drama around social media and fighting and bullying and in groups and out groups, dynamics that happen of course in real life but in social media, where adults to feel the license to be so much meaner to each other when they can’t see somebody on the other end. And so a lot around that, and then exposure to content that they would really prefer that their children not see. And I think that’s one of the most disturbing things is how all the content is algorithmically delivered to all of us, including children. And so things like the Facebook whistleblower exposing that, you know, kids who are maybe starting to have the early habits of an eating disorder, or really interested in dieting, being barraged with content that reinforces their eating disorder, or interest in dieting. So So all of these things, you know, the content, the amount of time and and the battles. I mean, I hear that all the time that and I think that’s one place where parents, you know, sometimes make the calculation, like, do I want to get in a multi hour struggle with my teen? Or do I just want to say, You know what, go go get on Tik Tok, because it’s just so exhausting. And all consuming.

It certainly is easier for many parents to make that sort of justification. But the long term effects could potentially be quite marked. Could you take us through? What would your key messages be for parents who may be in the category of saying, You know what, there’s a lot of exaggeration around this, or people who don’t really understand these platforms and have taken the stance that it’s not really for them to do to do much research. They’re too old. It’s something that their kids know about. They trust their child, you know, what would you say to those parents in terms of the potential impacts on their kids?

Yeah,so I think that, you know, we have a growing body of research that shows, you know, that overuse of social media is linked to anxiety, depression, higher suicide rates. So we’re talking about really serious problems that result from this. And I think the other thing that’s really important to understand is that all of social media is designed for the benefit of the platform’s and for the benefit of advertisers, I know of no other environment that our children spend so much time in, that wasn’t designed for their benefit, or for their education or their edification, that was designed to make money off of them. And so the choices that these social media sites make, are often at odds with what’s best for children’s well being. And I think, you know, that is true, both in terms of how they deliberately design their products to be addictive, to get kids compulsive and checking them over and over again, and and you know, those battles that parents are having are deliberate, the social media companies want to wear you down as a parent, because the more and more time your child is on a platform, the more money they’re worth.

You know, it’s interesting, as I was reading your background, you’ve been at this in terms of being on the front lines of this particular topic for more than 20 years. So well, before social media became, you know, a headline just about every day of the week, and certainly before smartphones became ubiquitous. So when you look at all the overwhelming evidence that you allude to, where we are today, with the technology, etc. What trends concern you the most?

Yeah, that’s a great question. We and I think the, I think the aging down is what concerns me the most, I think that, you know, when, obviously, when I started doing this, there was no smartphones or social media, but then right, you know, it was a teen thing. And then it was the 1211 year olds, were getting on and now it’s routine to have eight year olds on Tik Tok, you know, tick tock, where there’s all sorts of inappropriate adult to child contact, where there’s all sorts of sexualized content where people are, understand that if their content is sexualized, it’s more likely to go viral and get them attention. So eight year olds, right, and eight year olds with phones, and so I think if the trends continue, where, you know, four year olds are going to have their own phone soon. And so I think that is the trend that concerns me most. Last year, we launched a successful campaign to stop Facebook from releasing a kid’s version of Instagram, you know, all part of this plan to get kids attached to these platforms as early as possible. But that’s I think the thing that really concerns me is that, you know, and the marketers will, will, will try and justify it, they’ll say, oh, kids are getting older at a younger age, they’re more mature. And there’s there’s no developmental evidence that kids are more, you know, that they’ve fundamentally changed. They’re just having these experiences at a younger age, but that doesn’t mean that they’re ready for them.

So in providing examples of how these companies which are unregulated go about it. Getting kids addicted more or less? What? First of all, do you think that these companies have the ability to dial it back? And secondly, what specifically do you want to see from them? And lawmakers moving forward?

Yeah, I think they absolutely have the ability to dial it back. You know, one of the things that we know that they do is they are constantly doing what’s called a B testing, where they are trying out different designs and seeing which how that will affect their users behavior. And what they’re doing with that is, is testing out things to keep, you know, how will we get kids to keep checking these platforms? How will we get them to share things with their friends? How will we get them to spend more time on our platforms, they could be doing that same kind of testing, to say, how do we you know, limit it and so so the I, you know, the, the average experience is a half an hour a day, or you know, kids or kids are naturally are being encouraged to take breaks, as opposed to, you know, go go check that platform, because your, your friend just posted a really cool picture. And if you don’t go see that right now, you’re going to be missing out on it. So there’s all sorts of things. I mean, that’s one of the things is that these, every design decision that goes into these platforms is very carefully chosen for the benefit of the platform, we could make, we could change that we could make it so that the the design decisions were for the benefit of children. And that’s actually what we’re trying to do in terms of policy. And in terms of regulation. The UK, for instance, recently enacted something called the age appropriate design code that says that if you have a platform that kids are likely to use, you have to design it with their best interests in mind, we have legislation in the United States that we’re trying to do the same thing. So it’s really about shifting the equation. It’s about saying, if you’re going to be this place where children gather, you have you have a responsibility for that. And and and up until now, we haven’t seen that we’ve seen the company say, You know what this is we’re gonna put out our product. And it’s, you know, if there’s problems, that’s because there’s a problem with the kids or the parents, we don’t believe that there’s bad kids or bad parenting going on. We believe that there’s a bad business model that is driving all of these horrible design choices.

It’s really interesting, as we follow this, this story, certainly in recent years, you’ve got unequivocal and mounting overwhelming evidence in terms of the impact of screens and social media, on the mental health of children, not just in North America, but certainly globally. But there’s been three key events that have happened in a short space of time that have been quite critical. You mentioned Francis Haugen, so the Facebook whistleblower back in the fall of 2021, coming out with those incredible revelations about that organization, you have yourself in a historic address to Congress in December of 2021, historic for your organization, fairplay addressing Congress on this issue, and most recently, US President Joe Biden made a point of mentioning this in his State of the Union address. I’m curious, what in your opinion, is the impact of each of these critical events? And and how do you see that moving forward?

Yeah. And I would actually add a fourth event, I would add the the film, the social dilemma, which had, particularly here in North America, but even globally had such an incredible impact in raising awareness of these issues. You know, what I see is happening is, for the first time, I see parents who are angry, who are demanding change, and who are no longer pointing the finger at themselves and at each other. You know, this was an issue just a couple years ago, that was so ingrained in the parenting lot wars, which I, about coincidentally, often play out over social media, like where, where parents are pointing the finger, and like, I know how to do this. And if you if you’re struggling with social media, it’s because you don’t know how to set boundaries, or you’re a bad parent. And we have so many parents now who have gone through this, who have tried everything, who are exhausted. And also we have tons and tons of parents who it’s just unfair to expect them to take on monitoring social media as essentially another full time job. I mean, we are two years into this pandemic, everybody is exhausted, parents don’t need another full time job. And it’s the last thing they need. And so I to me, what we are seeing in this moment, is is for the first time, lawmakers starting to understand the depth of the problem. Parents demanding change instead of just saying, Oh, we all just need to be better parents, and really pointing the finger at the tech companies and their desire to profit off of our children as the real reason for this crisis. And for me as somebody who has been working on the issue of of trying To protect children from commercialism and companies making money off of them, it’s really heartening to be in this moment where there’s just this greater understanding. And I don’t think I think we’re past the point of talking about, is there a problem? And now we’re talking about what are the solutions? And to me, that’s a huge step forward.
On that note, what does success look like for you, in the short and in the long term?
Yeah. So I think in the short term, we are trying to get some legislation passed here in the United States, we’re trying to get better regulation of social media, I think a few things that we are at the top of our wish list. First of all, we want to see privacy protections expanded to teenagers. In the United States, the moment you turn 13, on the internet, you are treated as an adult, I know of no other legal context where we say you’re 13, you’re a full fledged adult, you don’t need any special protections. So we need to do that, we need to ban data driven advertising to children and teens. So the reason we’re all on these platforms so much is so that they can gather as much data about us as possible, so they can pinpoint and target advertisements to us. And so if we can disrupt that, not only will we protect children from the worst kind of marketing, which is like targeted based on everything they know about you so they can expose and exploit your vulnerabilities. But we will disrupt the business model that makes kids so violent vulnerable to these platforms in the first place. We also want legislation that would, as I said earlier, require these companies to make the best interest of children a consideration to require them to evaluate the mental health impacts and physical health impacts of their products on children before they unleash them on children. And so, you know, I think so many of the things that we see from autoplay on YouTube to, you know, snap streaks, where you’re rewarded for being on Snapchat every day, all of these things, you know, these should be things that are considered unfair practices, when they’re aimed at children, when you are trying to leverage their developmental vulnerabilities in order to get them to use social media more, so you can get make more money off of them, that’s something that shouldn’t be allowed. So that’s my hope through this regulation, in the short term, and in the long term, I hope that we we get to a place where we understand that, you know, powerful companies trying to make money off of children is wrong, and that we just shouldn’t have advertising to kids, at least until they reach their teenage age, that we should have the primary influences in a child’s life be those people and institutions that actually care about their well being. That’s not a particularly radical idea. And so, you know, and I’m hopeful, I’m more hopeful at this moment than I’ve ever been, because of some of the events that you mentioned before.

I want to end both with an optimistic tone, but also to ask you, for your opinion or your perspective on families, who are who are struggling with this, but may not have encountered what some families have, which is a point of no return where, for example, bullying, cyber bullying, etc, has resulted in a negative be very negative outcome in their family. You know, we’re talking about taking one’s own life, etc, or suicidal ideation. That is obviously the worst of this kind of discussion and where it could end. So for families who aren’t there yet, what kind of hopeful advice could you provide as a dad yourself with a teenager in 2022 about how they can move forward in a positive way for their child’s well being?

Yeah, so I think there’s a few things that we can do as parents even once we you know, our kids have a phone and they’ve already started down the path on social media. Part of it is modeling and and really getting a handle on some of our own use in front of our kids and and creating at the very least creating spaces and moments that are social media and phone free. So meals, bedtimes get those phones, including your parents get them out of the bedroom. They disrupt sleep. And so you know, having those screen free moments, I think is really really important and and making those rules and sticking to them and you can do it like you know, your your team will give you a hard time at first but if you start habituating them to it, it’s doable. It’s not like you’re taking the phone away forever. You just say during dinner, nobody’s getting on. So that’s that’s one thing. I think talking to teens, particularly teens and maybe once kids to be get to be around 11 Watch the social dilemma with them. Talk to them about why it is so hard for them to get off of their phones, talk to them about the business that’s going on behind the scenes talk to them about how they’re being manipulated, teenagers hate the idea of adults manipulating them. And so it’s really powerful, you can have really wonderful conversations, one of the things when you get your team talking, which you know, and get them, and I think showing the film like that can be really helpful. It’s, they’ll tell you, they don’t like social media, they hate it, but they don’t feel like they can get off of it, because that’s where their friends are. And the most important thing for them in that moment, is to be where their friends are. So I think starting those conversations can be really valuable. The other thing that I will say is, you know, I hear this all the time, from parents around the decision to get the phone, you know, I give talks in like, some places like New York City, and a parable come up to me after my talk, they’ll say, kind of sheepishly and say, you know, we got our kid a phone, because they take the subway to school by themselves, and we need to be able to, you know, reach them and, or they need to be able to reach us. And I say, that makes a lot of sense. You know, I, I wouldn’t be worried if my kid was taking the subway by themselves and want to be able to have a safety net. So when they come home, they put the phone someplace, and they don’t use it until they commute the next day, right. And of course, at that point, the parent looks at me like I have 10 heads, because one of the things we do with phones, is they go from not having them to being a 24/7 appendage. And so, you know, starting with when you get first get the phone, setting really strict parameters about when it can be used and not used, and then maybe loosening those over time, but always not, it’s never going to be something while you live under my roof that you have 24/7 I think is important. And if they already have it, 24/7 trying to you know, taking some of that back, and that’s going to be really hard. And you’re going to probably have some meltdowns and some some pretty big fights at the beginning. But if you can get through that if you can fight through that and re establish some, you know, this is not something you have with you all the time. It’s a tool that you use for this thing, including socializing. That’s okay a little bit of the time, but it’s not going to be all of your social life. Your whole life isn’t going to revolve around socializing and playing games, and watching videos on this little tiny screen your world it has to be much bigger than that.

Josh Golin thank you so much for your time, tons of wonderful points for parents and families to consider and certainly great advice. We really appreciate your time and your perspective today.

It was a pleasure, Lianne.

Now 13, Golin’s daughter Clara remains somewhat of a refreshing anomaly.

“She doesn’t have her own phone, which is unusual. And she doesn’t have any social media accounts,” he says.

And while he admits that it will get more challenging as she gets older, Golin takes heart in the strong foundation that has been set.

“One of the things that we did was we talked to other parents when she was in third grade, and we talked about our desire to hold off phones as long as possible,” Golin continues. “And so other parents joined us in that. Most of her friends at this point have phones, but there was a lot of delay. So there wasn’t as much pressure early because we had these kind of community agreements. And even now, I think that she’s in a cohort of peers where they certainly spend a lot of time online, but she doesn’t have as much FOMO (fear of missing out) as she might if they were on social media,” he says.

As Executive Director of Fairplay, a non-profit organization and watchdog concerned with how children are marketed to — Golin has an additional vested interest in the subject matter. His organization’s mission is to preserve childhood by protecting young people (kids, teens and young adults) from the clutches of commercialism, while advocating for change among big tech and social media companies and making the case for regulating digital media with lawmakers. Mounting and overwhelming evidence around the impact on kids’ mental health, Golin says, demands it.

“We have a growing body of research that shows that overuse of social media is linked to anxiety, depression, higher suicide rates,” continues Golin, who has been with Fairplay since 2003. “We’re talking about really serious problems that result from this. The other thing that’s really important to understand is that all of social media is designed for the benefit of the platforms and for the benefit of advertisers. I know of no other environment that our children spend so much time in, that wasn’t designed for their benefit, or for their education or their edification — that was designed to make money off of them. And so the choices that these social media sites make, are often at odds with what’s best for children’s well-being.”

Golin made that precise case during a historic address before U.S. Congress in December 2021. Testifying before a subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Golin’s presentation entitled, ‘Holding big Tech Accountable: Legislation to Build a Safer Internet’ described:

  • why kids and teens are spending more time on digital media than ever
  • the root causes of increased time on screens
  • how the design of apps, websites and platforms entice kids to spend time on them
  • what Big Tech companies can do to their platforms that will prioritize children’s well-being over monetization and profit
  • why regulation of the internet and social media is necessary
  • the impact of commercialization and marketing to kids on youth mental health

“We are trying to get some legislation passed in the United States.” he says. “We’re trying to get better regulation of social media. We want to see privacy protections expanded to teenagers. In the United States, the moment you turn 13, on the internet, you are treated as an adult. I know of no other legal context where we say you’re 13, you’re a full-fledged adult, you don’t need any special protections. We need to ban data-driven advertising to children and teens.”

two kids on bed looking at laptop

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto: https://www.pexels.com/photo/little-brothers-using-laptop-on-bed-4545942/

Prior to Golin’s appearance before Congress, the case for probing social media platforms received global attention when former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen blew the whistle on the tech giant’s practices and impact on children — among other areas of society — sharing thousands of internal documents in the process.

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside Facebook,” she testified before Congress in October 2021. “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and from governments around the world. Facebook became a $1 trillion company by paying for its profits with our safety, including the safety of our children. And that is unacceptable.”

In December 2021, the U.S Surgeon General’s Advisory entitled, ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health‘ further illustrated the depth of what has been described as a national mental health emergency among children and youth in the United States and provided recommendations.

Then on March 1, 2022,  U.S. President Joe Biden vaulted the issue to the front-burner during his first State of the Union address:
‘We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said. “It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”

During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Josh Golin discusses:

  • Trends involving social media and digital technology that are most concerning
  • How the design of social media and other technologies impact users
  • What makes digital media addictive
  • What Big Tech should do to prioritize the well-being of children
  • Why social media companies should be regulated
  • Factors that have supported Fairplay’s advocacy work
  • Strategies and tips for parents and families

Related links:

fairplayforkids.org

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