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In the midst of daily privacy scandals and data breaches, it’s quite obvious that social media is broken. The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal opened a Pandora’s box and exposed us all to what is really going on behind the closed doors of social media giants. Before the news broke, sharing personal images and private messages with friends or even strangers was a part of our daily communication. Today, every ‘like,’ ‘share,’ and ‘comment’ comes with the inevitable questions: who is watching, and what are they doing with this information?

Social media as we know it was introduced when today’s parents were teenagers, just around 15 years ago. In an age where everything is digital, parents are faced with the question: is social media safe for my children to use? With a lack of transparency from the biggest players, it’s hard to know what today’s popular apps are doing with our data. However, we know they have it, and this should be worrisome enough. What’s more? If your child has created a profile, it is already too late.

Chances are, if you have a teenager at home, they are on social media. What many parents overlook is the danger of merely signing up for a profile. Hidden within the terms and conditions of every app are permissions to scrape a user’s data. Why? The answer is simple. Money.

With each permission you allow, for example – access to your location, your camera, or your contacts – the app can learn more about your child and their preferences. What isn’t clear is that your child is now the product of social media giants and they’ve lost all power to the seller. Your daughter posts about her favorite band and your son follows his favorite sports team – why would an app care to keep track? This information is worth a considerable amount of money to social platforms; the big data industry is extremely profitable and in demand in the advertising technology space.

Now that these ad-tech companies know what our children like and how they behave, they use this knowledge to their advantage to boost sales and brand awareness. Young teens are the most influenced consumers. By granting access to their data, brands can target our children and pursue them to buy products that are “cool.” The power of programmatic advertising is immense.

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A perfect case to reference is the growing popularity of the Juul vape pen, an extremely prevalent nicotine product amongst teenagers. The company utilized available data to find out what teenagers like, what they respond to, and where they shop, in order to strategically advertise to a younger demographic. Today they are top selling nicotine product in America, but without our data, where would they be and how many teenagers would be addicted?

Data misuse can be harmful to our youth; so, can we simply opt out and delete our children’s profiles? The most concerning factor is that once you’re signed up, it’s too late. While you can choose to opt out of location or camera access, the data previously collected is still on file and embedded within the code. As they say, the internet is truly forever. As giants like Facebook constantly remind us that they are working to create a secure and private platform for billions of users, they cannot. It is simply impossible.

When Facebook was created 15 years ago, the technical backbone didn’t take into consideration data security and user protection. To completely eradicate the problems and risks our children and teens face in the digital age would mean rebuilding the Internet.

The best advice? Don’t deny your teenagers the opportunity to express themselves on social media. Today, social sharing is an important part of everyday life and can teach kids skills that will help them in their future careers. That said, it’s important to find platforms that will give our children a voice without subjecting them to strangers sliding into their DMs and negative implications such as trolls, bots, ads and the societal pressures of commenting and likes. 

Howard Gould, Board of Directors, Mindhive


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