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“Have you ever heard of Columbine?” my 21-year-old daughter asked my husband and me over stir fry last week. She had watched a documentary about the incident on YouTube, and like the time she asked if I had ever heard the Modern English song “I Melt With You,” she had no concept of our lives before her birth. Of course we had heard of the infamous school shooting, we told her, and we knew about Dylan and Eric’s tragic plan to reenact the first-person shooter video game Doom.

Back then, I thought we could prevent our children from being negatively affected by new digital technologies by laying down clear rules and communicating frequently. Surely our society, government and private companies would study the Columbine shootings to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. I felt comforted that ratings systems, consumer protections and regulations would be put in place to keep our children safe.

Or so I thought.

What I didn’t know was that there were emerging technologies that would negatively influence our children more than video games ever could.

Friendster led to LinkedIn and MySpace in 2003. Facebook started on Harvard University’s campus in 2004 and became the largest social networking site in the world by 2009. Instagram launched in 2010, and was gobbled by Facebook in 2012. WhatsApp was launched in 2009, and snatched by Facebook in 2014. Today, Facebook is a trillion-dollar conglomerate. Thirty-seven-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s cofounder, CEO and controlling shareholder, has a net worth of nearly $124 billion.

One would think that Zuckerberg, one of the wealthiest people in the world, would aim to use his fortune to make the world a better place for his two young daughters. But according to a series of recent Wall Street Journal articles, Zuckerberg’s company has disregarded its own internal studies showing Instagram use makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls, and more than 40% of teenage users in the U.S. and U.K. began feeling “unattractive" while using Instagram. These findings were posted on an internal Facebook message board in March 2020, but rather than changing its policies to protect Instagram users, Facebook plowed ahead with plans to release a new platform targeting children, ignoring proof that its product is “toxic” to teenage girls, causing more anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Zuckerberg watched a slide presentation on the findings, but at congressional hearings a couple months later, he said that Facebook researched the effects social media has on children, and found that "Social apps ... have positive mental-health benefits.” Fortunately, an unidentified whistleblower has leaked damning internal documents to Congress, who is holding hearings on the matter.

As a parent who was fearful of the impact of video games on my kids post-Columbine, I am downright terrified of what social media has done to them. Having grown up in the ’70s and ’80s blissfully unaware of the technology that would envelop my children one day, I was at a disadvantage as a parent. My learning curve in understanding technology was slower than its growth. In other words, I didn’t learn fast enough to warn my kids before they were exposed to harm. We gave our three kids smartphones when they were in high school, ironically believing that it would help us keep them physically safe. We didn’t understand the dangers social media posed. Congress, with a median age over 58, is also at a disadvantage, trying to regulate technology that is difficult for our generation to comprehend.

However, it doesn’t take a computer scientist to face these five obvious facts:

U.S. teens spend more than half of their waking hours on screen media every day, not including screen time necessary for school and homework. Research has proven that social media has become a significant negative influence on the mental development of our children. Parents prohibiting or restricting social media use may be ineffective since the technology is widely accessible on a variety of devices. Greedy tech giants don’t care about our children, much less their own.

And it’s time for Congress to take action to stop them.

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