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I love watching “Mad Men” with my 16-year-old daughter. To me it’s a window into my parents’ and grandparents’ world, a fascinating comparison to today. To her it’s like watching life in a parallel universe. She’s outraged at depictions of parents smoking in front of their children and, when one character was in a car accident, she was dumbfounded as to why the driver’s kids were in the front seat without seatbelts.
To ask my teenager what modern practices might look reckless to her grandchildren would ruin this precious hour we have once a week. Yet, I ask myself that question frequently as I see technology transform our children’s lives.
The average child spends more time today with media than they do in school or with their family. More than 5 million kids under the age of 13 have joined Facebook; by the time my daughter is 18 she will have sent at least a half million texts.
As a parent I find all this technology use by kids daunting; most adults are just trying to keep up.
Remember that sweet baby picture you once posted to Facebook? That single, innocent photo share drew the outline of what will become your child’s digital footprint. As kids make their way online, they routinely share personal information and opinions, “check in” wherever they go, and populate their “timelines,” oblivious to the fact they’re being watched.
The impulse-enabling nature of social media platforms, coupled with kids’ lack of emotional maturity, can be combustible.
Adolescent psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about the importance of the teen years being a time for identity exploration and experimentation. But this important developmental phase is dramatically twisted when identity experimentation appears permanently and publicly on one’s digital record. Forget for a moment about the cyber-bullies, ID thieves, data brokers, etc., who might access your child’s social profile. When technology 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 passed Congress unanimously. This was bipartisan recognition that television programming had become increasingly commercial, and that with all the time our kids spent in front of the television, we had a collective responsibility to offer them educational programming with limited commercials. We are now at the same crossroads with digital media.
If technology leaders can pioneer facial recognition and geo-locators, can’t they come up with "eraser" buttons? Why do they need to track and target my kids with ads? By optimizing the online experience for children while they are young, technology giants could build brand loyalty early and keep them free of all the unsavory aspects that currently trap them in a vicious cycle of exploitation.
Unlike the years “Mad Men” depicts, today we are aware of the necessity of car seats, seatbelts, sunblock, and understand the risks associated with cigarettes. As a society we’ve evolved and now recognize our kids deserve special treatment by regulators. Why should the digital media world be any different?
Technology companies must take responsibility for their contributions to culture and seize the opportunity to be part of the solution, so we can give our kids the safe, healthy childhoods they deserve.
James Steyer, founder & CEO of Common Sense Media, and author of “Talking Back To Facebook.”