The Terms of Your Service
In his recent book Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media, tech expert Chris Martin pinpoints the beginning of the digital age as 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web and thus transformed human civilization. The internet arrived just as Bill Gates and Microsoft made computers accessible to the masses, and in 1991 Microsoft sold four million copies of its 3.0 operating system the first year it became available. In 1995, Windows 95 sold 40 million. Home computers and the internet arrived together. Nothing would ever be the same, and nobody realized just how radically everything would change.
Social media followed shortly thereafter. First there was GeoCities, then Friendster, and then MySpace—which refused to throw in with Mark Zuckerberg when he approached them twice in 2005, and promptly faded as Facebook became the global owner of our social connections. Facebook bought Instagram, which arrived as smartphones transferred the desktop to our pockets and perpetually in front of our faces, in 2012 for a billion dollars. By 2018, it was worth an estimated 100 billion. Other platforms followed—Linkedin, Snapchat, TikTok. There are more, but these dominate the buying and selling of our most precious commodity—our time.
There are few now who would deny that this colonization of our lives by global mega-corporations has been incredibly destructive. Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff detailed how our behavior is manipulated and our privacy eliminated in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power; Nancy Jo Sales detailed the skyrocketing suicides and pervasive mental illness afflicting teens in American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers; in The Atlantic last year, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted that Facebook had likely “harmed millions of girls,” and advocated that the government step in to counter the hypnotic Pied Piper power of Big Tech.
Haidt believes that the pandemic of mental illness provably caused by social media warrants government intervention. He proposes three solutions: lawmakers should pass legislation forcing Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms to give academic researchers access to their data; lawmakers should strengthen the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in order to raise the age at which “internet adulthood” is reached (and children can legally hand over their privacy and data) to at least 16 years, while giving more power to parents; and finally, parents should “work with local schools to establish a norm: Delay entry to Instagram and other social media platforms until high school.” According to Haidt: “Right now, families are trapped.”
Ohio senatorial candidate (and author of Hillbilly Elegy) J.D. Vance has been saying much the same thing. A nation that allows neuroscientists making six figure salaries to addict kids to apps that ruin their lives, he told me by phone from the campaign trail, is a nation with badly skewed priorities. Like Haidt, he believes we should give parents more power—we could legislate a ban on porn for kids under 18, for example, or simply do what Haidt suggests and step between parents and Big Tech, which wants young eyeballs to monetize the attention of children even if they have to rewire immature minds and steal their childhoods to do it. Other countries have taken these steps, Vance told me. Why not America?
If this seems like an odd alliance between a liberal and conservative targeting corporations, keep in mind that the social media platforms conditioning a generation to twitch for dopamine hits every time their smartphones buzz like rats in a lab know what they are doing. In 2017, Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and founder of Napster, explained that Facebook’s in-house experts had essentially figured out how to hack the minds of its users:
The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them…was all about: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in awhile, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you…more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop…exactly the sort of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators—it’s me, it’s Mark Zuckerberg, it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people—understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
Chris Martin’s Terms of Service is packed with interesting insights, but a fundamental observation that stood out to me was this: In order for people to use social media responsibly—i.e., not get addicted—we essentially have to use these platforms in ways that they were not designed to be used. These platforms were created to be addicting; designed to dominate your day; programmed to hack your psychology. Getting addicted to social media isn’t simply a by-product of bad time management, it is using the product in the way that its designers intended. You are both a user and the product, and the minutes of your life are being sold to advertisers for an enormous amount of money while complex algorithms keep you scrolling with rage, lust, fear, or loneliness. They are doing this to us on purpose.
But we do not have to let them do it. I believe Haidt and Vance and others like Zuboff are right. We cannot let Big Tech corporations cannibalize American childhoods for cash, and there are things we can do to stop them—if only, as Vance points out, we summon the will to do it. As the right considers its relationship to government, the monopolization of childhood by Big Tech must be at the forefront of the discussion. If we let corporations get away with this, what won’t we let them do?
As for Vance himself, he told me, he is fortunate that his children are still young. When the time comes to introduce them to these technologies, he plans to do precisely what the CEOs of the Big Tech companies themselves do with their own children—ban or strictly limit their tech products. If those who created these products carefully keep screens away from their own kids, Vance pointed out, we should be following their lead. The government should, as well.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.