Kids Are More Than Data Points


We need social-media business leaders to provide us with the same level of privacy they would want for their own families. Here's how to do that.

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Fifteen years ago, Ken Auletta wrote a fascinating book called The Highwaymen, which offered a remarkable insider's view of the various media moguls who were competing for control of the global media and entertainment industries. The book revealed a great deal about their basic psyches and world views. It essentially showed them to have split personalities and to be industry leaders who bifurcated their personal and professional lives.

During his research for the book, Auletta asked a very simple but pointed question to these powerful media and entertainment-industry leaders, "What won't you do?" What Auletta discovered about such media moguls of that era as Disney's Michael Eisner, News Corp's Rupert Murdoch, and GE/NBC's Jack Welch was that they somehow disassociated what they did at work from what they permitted in their own homes. They would not let their kids watch certain shows or movies at night. Yet by day, their networks and studios would go and make the very same shows and movies that they would not let their own kids watch. These media executives simply didn't take responsibility for the consequences that their programs and content might have on other people's children. Their focus on profit trumped all other concerns.

Today, I see a very similar split personality emerging among the engineers and tech industry pioneers who now dominate the online and social media worlds. They too are driven by the pursuit of advertising profits as well as the stock price of their IPO, though perhaps somewhat less so than the Michael Eisner's and Rupert Murdoch's of the 1990s entertainment industry. Yes, they too like their enormous profits and their rising stock prices, but they truly love their data. They justify their business actions and behaviors through the engineer's rationale that "data is virtue." In Mark Zuckerberg's case, they justify this massive fixation with personal data by claiming that it's all about "transparency" and "sharing."

But what are the consequences of this unbridled pursuit of data and all the "transparency" and "frictionless sharing" that it supposedly engenders? Most importantly, what are the consequences of this for an immature 10-year-old or a vulnerable 12-year-old or an emotionally troubled teen? The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world don't appear to have considered the consequences in any meaningful way. And perhaps this is predictable. They're barely beyond their teenage years themselves. Most of them are not parents yet. Many of them appear to believe in a largely libertarian approach to life. And virtually all of them are engineers who pray at the sacred altar of data.

Perhaps you think I'm overstating this point, but just look at the absurd statements that Zuckerberg and other tech industry gurus make on a regular basis about personal privacy. Reid Hoffman, the Founder of LinkedIn, recently said that "privacy is for old people." Zuckerberg talks of "evolving social norms," and he claims that Facebook wants to make the world more transparent with more "frictionless sharing." He appears to genuinely believe this naïve mantra for everyone but himself. He's a very private person and you can "friend" him on Facebook. The problem is that very few in the data and profit driven tech industry appears to be considering the consequences of all this "transparency and sharing," especially when it comes to children and teens who don't know any better. Their companies act like huge, unaccountable utilities, creating increasingly efficient platforms that seek more and more control of our personal information and data. But nobody seems to be asking how you can be a responsible tech CEO and a responsible parent raising healthy children at the same time.

There is another striking parallel to the "What Won't You Do" issue that the entertainment industry executives that Ken Auletta so often chose to ignore in the 1990s. Historically, leading executives and companies in the traditional broadcast and media industries had remarkable influence over politicians in Washington and elsewhere because media had such an impact on election campaigns. Similarly, today's tech leaders increasingly hold sway over the very politicians who are supposed to rein them in and regulate them on behalf of the public interest. Not only is Silicon Valley a gold mine of campaign cash, but candidates for public office, from the President on down, now conduct social media campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. So their political fortunes are now increasingly intertwined with their relationships to many of the giant tech companies and their top executives, just as they have been with more traditional media companies.

Do you think it is an accident that no serious children's privacy legislation has been passed by Congress since 1998? Do you find it surprising that politicians on both sides of the political aisle cower in the wake of visits from leading tech and social media executives? Do you think it is merely by chance that Facebook, Google, and others have massively increased their use of Washington, D.C.-based lobbyists and lawyers at the very same time as they increasingly claim control over your and your children's personal data and private information? I would suggest that none of this is a coincidence. Indeed it is very similar to the cozy relationships between leading politicians and the traditional media companies and their top executives that have existed in our nation's capital for years.

The more that digital media shapes our lives and those of our children, the more we need accountability from the engineers and executives who dominate the tech industry.

The reason it is so important to understand who the new tech industry moguls are and how this relates to our lives as well as to our national politics boils down to one simple word: accountability. The more that digital media shapes our lives and those of our children, the more we need accountability from the engineers and executives who dominate the tech industry. Just as they are an increasing part of the problem when it comes to privacy, not to mention the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of our kids, so too must they be part of any solution. Digital media and the epochal changes it brings -- both pro and con -- are here to stay. It is up to each of us as parents, educators, and citizens to insist that the tech industry play a central role in expanding the many positive and pro-social opportunities while also limiting the potentially significant consequences. And our elected officials must represent us in that effort.

Indeed, it is an absolute societal imperative that we hold the industry accountable for this on an ongoing basis. With that in mind, it is worth taking a brief look at what each key sector of society can do to ensure a positive digital future for our kids.

Taking Back Control of Digital Media

There are four basic institutions in our society which play an important role in shaping this new digital reality in the most humanistic and productive ways. The list starts first and foremost with families and parents. But it also includes the media and technology industries, our schools and education system, and finally our government. Each has a critical role to play, and I devote the second half of the book to the critically important responsibilities for parents and teachers. Yet the other institutions will either be part of the problem or play a huge role in the positive solution. Let's hope it is the latter.

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James P. Steyer

James C. Steyer is the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media and the author of The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children and Talking Back to Facebook. His work has been featured in many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

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