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.

[optional image description]

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.

The responsibility of the media and technology industries for shaping a positive digital reality could not be more critical. In short, there needs to be a public and sustained discussion among tech leaders about how they can be truly responsible and accountable to the young people (and all consumers) who use their products and platforms. Significant leadership will only come about when individual leaders in this industry recognize that shareholder value and the related pursuit of data and efficiency are not the only values that matter.

Society should insist that there be a clear code of ethics and social responsibility for the technology companies who hold such sway over our children's lives. In the broadcast era, for example, the public interest responsibilities of the media industry were clearly enunciated, and large media companies were both proactive in pursuing this and held accountable by government and citizens when they did not. This set of public interest responsibilities has diminished over the past three decades of deregulation, but many traditional media industry leaders still recognize their obligations to the broader public good.

No such clear set of standards and accountability mechanisms exist today in the digital technology space, and that should change. This is particularly important since so many of the pioneers and leaders of the field are so young and have not yet embraced any meaningful sense of public interest responsibilities. Giants of the field like Bill Gates, Brian Roberts, John Chambers, and Tim Cook should set an example for the young tech pioneers. At the same time, several of the new generation of leaders like Larry Page at Google, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, and Dick Costolo at Twitter need to step forward and assume a far greater mantle of leadership on the social responsibility front. After all, they're parents, too ... and their platforms are reshaping the lives of millions of children, including their own.

In a related vein, our political leaders need to get their heads out of the sand and establish an overall societal framework for social responsibility in the digital age. We obviously need major new laws and regulatory standards regarding the privacy of children and other consumers. The technology industry has shown little concern or responsiveness in this critical area except when pressured by government, so the answer is clear. Federal and state government leaders need to pass new privacy statutes, and key agencies like the FCC and the FTC need to enforce them consistently, especially where the well-being of children and teens is involved. Similarly, at the state level, attorneys general need to use their enforcement powers to hold the tech industry to account for the protection of young people and other consumers. With the current dysfunctional partisanship in Washington, D.C., some of the most important government leadership in this area is likely to come at the state and local level ... and none too soon.

In my experience, the industry will only respond in truly responsible ways when pressured by government leaders -- both through legislation and regulation. That is why they've employed so many highly paid lobbyists in D.C. and elsewhere of late. They know that government is supposed to protect the public's rights and interests, and industry is consistently trying to water down or eliminate regulatory efforts which may limit their profits and IPO stock prices. In the years ahead, the stakes will only get higher, and groups like Common Sense Media as well as the broader citizenry must hold our elected leaders accountable so that they will in turn demand accountability and best practices from the industry.

It is the responsibility of our government officials to protect the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.

My guess is that there are some enormous legislative battles yet to come in the privacy front, especially where kids and teens are involved. It is the responsibility of our government officials to protect the interests of the most vulnerable in our society on many levels. In that regard, one area that will clearly need attention in the years ahead is the potential reemergence of the "digital divide." This can limit opportunities for full participation by low-income children and families in the new digital age. Needless to say, government leaders will have a central role in ensuring that this critical form of societal inequality does not persist in the years ahead, and industry will play a large role as well.

Ultimately, many of the most important challenges of this new digital era will only be met through sustained education efforts. Once again, our government plays a crucial role in this area. First, digital literacy needs to be promoted in every home and school in this nation. This will necessarily involve ongoing public dialogue and broad public awareness campaigns about responsible digital behavior and to how to take advantage of digital opportunities. Such education and public awareness campaigns will involve both public and private sector leadership. The White House, the Department of Education, and the FCC can set an overall framework for universal digital literacy, and the industry can pay for and distribute the key public education messages and campaigns. This is exactly the type of public-private partnership that benefits everyone, from our BlackBerry-using President on down, and the need for sustained public leadership couldn't be more clear.

I've written about the role of schools and our broader education system in developed 21st-century learning skills and classrooms. There are few more urgent national priorities than this next stage development of our schools and the development of curricula and teachers to implement them. Clearly schools have an absolutely central role to play in teaching the basics of Digital Literacy and Digital Citizenship to every student in this country. But they can't do that alone. They will need far greater support from our government leaders and also from the technology and media industries, both of which have much to gain in the long-run.

At the end of the day, however, parents remain the first line of defense when it comes to their kids. Parents are both teachers and role models in this new digital age, even if we didn't grow up with the devices and platforms ourselves. Proper parenting and education about appropriate digital media behavior isn't always easy. But it sure is an essential part of Parenting 101 today and in the future. With that in mind, I decided to make the second part of the book much more practical and how-to.

As a parent of four kids, who is often confounded by the latest device, YouTube video, or smartphone app, I frequently turn to my far wiser colleagues at Common Sense Media for basic advice and counsel. I'm fortunate to have that as a daily resource and guide, and I think my wife and kids have benefited greatly in the process, though our three teenagers might not always acknowledge it. The challenges and opportunities vary greatly by age and stage, however, so I've tried to frame the advice and resources in the next part of the book in that format. Whether you have a toddler, a first grader or kid in high school, the new digital landscape is a huge part of their reality. Hopefully the next section will help you navigate this brave new world in ways that benefit both you and the children you love. They certainly deserve nothing less, so I hope you both learn from and enjoy the practical guidance. The big winner in the long run will be our kids. And what could possibly be more important than that?

Adapted from James P. Steyer's Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age (Scribner)