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Likes, shares, comments keep them engaged like zombies while their minds are speedily being colonised and harvested, by prompt ads and Instagram influencers promoting lavish lifestyles and looks

I don’t see any point in living any more. I am completely worthless!” This was the conclusion 13-year-old Sania was forced to make about her life and identity when a group of children from her school wrote abusive, sexually-violent messages to her in an Instagram chat. This cyberbullying campaign had started a few months ago when Sania had openly challenged a boy who had made leering remarks on her body. “Though I have blocked all of them, I am checking my Insta page every few minutes. I am going mad but I cannot focus on anything else!”

French intellectual thinker Michel Foucault discussed how modern power operates on social control by inciting us to evaluate and police ourselves perpetually. Social media platforms use this with devious expertise by indoctrinating us into this self-surveillance by constant comparison with others — “I did not get many likes for this post, maybe people do not like me”; “Look at her skin and look at mine!”. They trick us by constantly pitching us against each other so that we are locked in the pentagon of Ps — proving, performing, posing, pretending and perfection.

How are our children’s minds being colonised? In our attention economy, where or what we focus on builds or brings down multi-trillion dollar industries. In this context, our children’s minds are fertile territories to attack and conquer. They are being dished out a dazzling amount of dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitter) at irregular intervals, through likes, shares and comments to keep them quietly engaged like zombies while their minds are speedily being colonised and harvested. Let’s take the example of the Instagram influencers who promote a lavish lifestyle or looks. How has this idea been exported across the world? What does it deceive our young ones into believing about themselves? Who benefits from it?

Are we using social media or is it using us? Some time back, I googled information on intermittent fasting and imagine my surprise when my Instagram and Facebook started pitching me ruthless advertisements on it, showing me how “overweight, flabby” women could be transformed to “slim, supple” bodies. Now, imagine a vulnerable teenager struggling with the awkwardness of their bodies and these advertisements being thrown at them as bait — hook, line and sinker! Except, it is our kids that are sinking while the big sharks go for the kill.

Would you give your kids a packet of cigarettes and say, “Use it with care?” Tech companies spend millions of dollars of their budget on what I would call, “design to kill.” Their goal is simple — make products that entertain and give instant gratification, that a person constantly craves and that never loses its appeal. They are not thinking of our children, their mental health and well-being. This is the main reason that the late Steve Jobs and many other innovators from Silicon Valley do not let their own children near social media because they understand the damaging impact. They should know as they have designed them to be so!

How is our young people’s mental health at stake here? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” You would have heard this philosophical question. I have another tongue-in-cheek version of it, “If you have not posted and documented sparkling events in your life on social media, did they actually happen?” It could be cooking or eating a fancy meal, going for a holiday, winning a prize — if you have not put it up on your newsfeed or your story, then would the world know that you exist and do you actually exist? Is your life really good enough, are you Insta-worthy enough if there is no audience? What if this audience is fickle and brittle, like most audiences can be, and they do not like what you present to them or maybe they turn against you? What do these mind games (that social media is designed on) do to the shaky and fragile self-worth of a young person who is fed on the mantra, “You are as good as people think of you on Instagram!”

Our kids are not the consumers; they are the products! We were promised wonders of social media that got us into using them in the first place — staying connected, building communities, appreciating each other’s work. But at what cost? It is threatening the very values it is touting. Facebook (which has bought over Instagram and WhatsApp) which has almost three billion subscribers across the world is more powerful than any government. The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, (and, previously, The Great Hack, 2019) did a lot to expose the underbelly of this tech company’s multi-trillion mega-monster. And the worst thing is that we are not even aware of how we are being controlled and manipulated. As the computer scientist and ethicist Tristan Harris, put it, “How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you are in the matrix?”

Collective wisdom on using social media and not letting it use us: Are we being a little irrational in expecting the young to stand up to the power of the digital behemoths? Nevertheless, I got down to doing what I love to do — asking young people and their families on what steps could be taken collectively to tame the monster. Here are some really innovative ideas they shared:

Be a creator and consume selectively: What gives you a sense of joy, brings value to your life and makes you more creative? If there is an app that helps you do that, then choose to use that mindfully. For example, you might be a photographer or artist and you want to showcase your art on Instagram or your music on YouTube.

Education on social media in schools: Sania made a compelling argument about how schools and parents should get together to make sure that no children use any social media until high school, “And that, too, only after they understand how it can lead you down a rabbit hole.” If we cannot hold these tech giants accountable, then at least we can demystify their operations of power to our children so that they can make more informed decisions and use it effectively.

Dumb down your phone or computer: Remove social media and random apps on your phone, make access to social media inconvenient on your desktop so that the temptation to do a “quick peek” does not even arise.

Out of sight out of mind: Keep it inside a locked cupboard or give it to somebody to hide away. Delete apps like Instagram and only install when you are using them.

Build substitutes for your fidgety fingers: We humans love to fidget with our fingers and the tech designers use this against us very sneakily. Start finding substitutes such as doodling, strumming a guitar, knitting, whenever you feel the urge to go down the rabbit hole of no return.

Let me admit that I am not a Luddite giving gyaan on the evils of digital networking. I have my struggles with emails and WhatsApp that tug at my addictive fingers. We all realise that social media is here to stay — we can’t get rid of the beast and the best we can do is to tame it through collective action and demanding ethical accountability.

(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder, Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with. Write to her [email protected])

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