Kids today are flocking online, using tablets and smart phones, and downloading apps. More than 5 million kids under the age of 13 have joined Facebook, tens of millions more teenagers use the site for hours every day. By the time my daughter is 18 she will have sent at least a half million texts in her life. The average child spends more time today with media than they do in school or with their family. As a parent and a digital immigrant, all this technology use by kids can be daunting; most of us are just trying to keep up, let alone figure out who they're talking to, what they're saying, playing, or seeing online.
Remember the sweet baby picture that you posted to Facebook? With that single, innocent photo share, you dropped the first trace of what will become your child's digital footprint, a massive, permanent data trail that follows her everywhere. As they make their way online, young people routinely post and share private, personal information and opinions on social media platforms. They post millions more pictures. They "check in" wherever they go. They populate their timeline, tag photos, like and share, oblivious to the fact their actions are being watched and tracked -- pawns in the Internet monetization strategy known as "Big Data." Unfortunately this all comes at an ever-increasing social and emotional cost to our children.
Adolescent psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about the importance of the teen years being a time for identity exploration and experimentation. This is a normal and healthy part of growing up. But this important developmental phase is dramatically twisted when identity experimentation, however personal and private, appears permanently on one's digital record for all to see. Forget for a moment about the cyberbullies, ID thieves, data brokers, college admission officers, and job recruiters who might access your child's social profile, and use her information in damaging -- and even dangerous -- ways. When tech companies claim to "own" our kids' personal information, it's clear how distorted the issues of identity and privacy have become.
In the 1990s the Children's Television Act acknowledged that with all the time our kids were spending in front of the television, we have a collective responsibility to offer them positive, educational programming with limited commercials. It feels that we are at the same kind of crossroads with digital media.
So here's my question that I have posed to technology leaders many times, as both a dad and a child advocate, and why I wrote my new book, Talking Back to Facebook: if you can come up with features such as facial recognition or geo-locators, why can't you come up with eraser buttons? Why do you need to track my kid and sell ads against them? By optimizing the online experience for children while they are young, you could build brand loyalty early and keep them free of all the unsavory, unhealthy aspects that currently trap them in a vicious cycle of exploitation, whether by product placement, their peers or your very platform.
The promise of digital media to transform our lives and those of our children is immense: in education, for social connectedness, and to advance democracy and civic engagement. Technology companies must take responsibility for their contributions to the challenges created by our 24/7 always-on culture, and seize the opportunity to be part of the solution, so we can give our kids the safe, healthy childhood and adolescence they deserve.