Facebook whistleblower tells my daughter’s story about social media addiction

A few months ago, as the pandemic seemed to be receding and we had a first glimpse of what a normal life could be like again, my wife and I realized that our 13-year-old daughter had become addicted to social media.

I don’t use the word “addiction” lightly, although I did in the beginning. To joke at first, to convince her to put down her phone and go for a bike ride; then half-serious, in order to help her recognize the addiction she could develop with her devices; now, alarmed and worried, discussing with my wife how to intervene.

Not everyone develops addictions. It requires a certain type of personality, in a certain context, exposed to certain triggers. Unfortunately my daughter was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s a struggling teenager in the middle of a pandemic, forced to socialize – almost exclusively, for several months – in a naturally toxic virtual environment.

Those running the show, fully aware of this negative effect and their power to change it, refuse to act. They are, in the end, the main culprits of having engulfed at least two generations in a digital quagmire. If you’ve seen the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” you’ll remember this: Some wizards in Silicon Valley don’t let their own children use the platforms they develop. The Wall Street Journal series based on internal research leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, confirming that executives knew how much harm they caused to children, is considered a “bomb”. Yet the bombs have been exploding for months in our own homes.

I’ve heard many parents complain that their kids are engrossed in iPads, phones and computers – from epidemic to pandemic – and many of us agree that what started as a privilege has turned into inadvertently into an irrevocable right (according to our children, of course). Neither parent, however, used the word “addiction”. I understand that saying this word confirms that this is a serious problem. But, as they say, it is also the first step towards a solution.

For us, it took a while to see the classic signs, or, to be more precise, to associate these signs that my teenager was showing with the mental struggle she was going through. There was a lack of control, an inability to stay away from devices, decreased socialization, withdrawal symptoms, and a need to increase exposure.

I feel responsible, and my wife too, for being so short-sighted. The excuses are many: the hazy uncertainty of midlife, the new and improvised routines, and indeed the constant fear that our children will get sick. Our working days, locked in our house as we were, resembled Groundhog Day. A lot was happening under our radar, some even to the detriment of our own health. However, I don’t want to jump into the fire of guilt until I have analyzed the context.

At one point, the pandemic landscape offered no way for kids to engage except for online entertainment and virtual interaction with friends (mostly via video games). We thought that a phone – a frequent request from our children – could be a bridge to the outside world of friends and family. So, we authorized it. Worse yet: we allowed it without restrictions, as we assumed our daughter would use it responsibly. We didn’t know much.

We established more and more limitations as we went along: device curfews, parental controls, time limits, etc. I even bought a special router to automate the whole process. Each of these restrictions met with resistance, as expected. The nights could be particularly difficult, since it was time to return the phone and computer (keeping them in your room was no longer an option). Our inevitable “no” to a request for more time was followed, on a good day, by loud complaints about our parenting style; on a bad day, with a dramatic explosion (I’ll spare you the details). Our daughter’s character is strong, but she was showing her teeth like never before.

When the situation started to get out of hand and we needed more help, we reached out. There is an unfair stigma around therapy in the United States, but I’m from Argentina, the country with the highest number of psychologists per capita in the world. That first try didn’t quite work, however. It created a nice and safe space for our daughter to vent her frustrations. Good. Nonetheless, a child’s therapist must also be somewhat in tune with the parents, at least on the fundamentals. We were invited to let our daughter set the rules for her own self-control. It hadn’t worked before; it didn’t work anymore. We were accused by the therapist of having committed “an act of violence” while removing the devices. We haven’t given up, and she’s in better hands now, seeing a counselor and therapist, who also help us parents when we’re lost in this complex maze.

There are many negative elements to this situation besides the addiction itself. I would lump them into two broad categories: things she misses and things she’s exposed to, both equally bad. On the first, it is worth emphasizing the obvious: every second spent on the Internet is a second not spent reading a book, doing art, playing sports, going out with friends, going out for ice cream, etc. have been doing these activities for centuries and it can be said that they are good for you. “The world outside the Internet sucks,” my daughter says when she has a crush on turkey. I know she doesn’t think so, because I’ve seen her enjoy all of these things (except maybe sports).

On the things she’s exposed to – in our case it’s mostly TikTok, YouTube, Wattpad, and Netflix – I could cite volumes of studies that highlight just how harmful social media can be for everyone, especially teenage girls. None are as strong as the revelations from Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower.

“It exposes teens to more anorexic content,” Haugen said, adding that “Facebook chooses to mislead and misdirect.” The studies she disclosed showed an increased risk of suicidal ideation in teenage girls who also use Instagram. All of this we already knew, even if it is terribly sad to see it corroborated. Are other Big Tech companies doing the same? It will be difficult to convince us otherwise.

Mark Zuckerberg – in full damage control mode – claims there are good things in social media, and he’s right, but I wonder what the cost of these good things will be in the long run. I see in all the actors involved the development of a behavior that we have already experienced with tobacco. How long did it take for these companies to recognize that cigarettes caused cancer? More importantly, they didn’t do it on purpose.

Reading the Congressional hearings where Haugen testified, I found myself in the same position Ted Cruz defends. He channeled my own outrage so effectively that he toasted a Facebook executive. And I hate that, because most politicians, whether out of ignorance or ambition (or both) are more concerned with losing control of public opinion than with the mental health of our children, which makes it more difficult to find a solution. I don’t think Mr. Cruz is an exception. We’ve heard him use his daughters as an excuse before.

A proposal to regulate algorithms, so that they don’t create a vicious cycle of personalized content that feeds on insecurities, sounds good in theory – a renaissance of less aggressive and perhaps less addictive social media. That may not be enough, however. Good education in the use of these platforms (for children and parents), proper regulation of content and extensive government control should also be part of the solution.

Getting off the hedonistic treadmill isn’t easy, not just with social media. We adults should know because we are not always the role models we aspire to be. You let that sink in for a moment. Showing – without telling – our children the right path to live a fulfilling life is indeed as important as any ideas that social media companies could bring to solving this problem.

My wife asked the right question: Did our daughter start having mental health issues because of her addiction or was it the unfavorable background – a fledgling adolescence and prolonged 40s – the reason she had found solace in his addiction? My wife thinks it’s the latter. I am okay.

My daughter reluctantly accepts the situation she is going through. I secretly take this as a small victory. She is also starting to feel more comfortable with the limits we have placed on her. She even promised to read this essay when it is published. (I have already read him a few passages despite his disinterest.)

If I sound a little apocalyptic, I can assure you that I am not. There is hope. I see it clearly from time to time. When my daughter goes for a walk with her friends at the cafe; when she is proud of her swimming progress. The other day I took a cranky teenage girl to visit the high school she hopes to attend to motivate her a bit. I came home with the horniest girl in the world. I didn’t mind chatting happily without stopping.

By trying to dilute their share of the blame, the Silicon Valley tycoons are actually telling us that they can’t come up with a solution (without at least hurting their bottom line). At the same time, when it comes to how people relate to social media, we – kids, parents, everyone – need a deep reboot in our own homes, which could lead us to a healthier society overall.

Masllorens is a writer and musician in Houston.

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