A school in the US is suing social media giants for damage done to children's well-being. But fining tech giants is a feeble response to their attacks on society's welfare.
BUENOS AIRES - In January 2023, schools in Seattle in the United States took court action against the websites TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking damages for losses incurred from the psychological harm done to their pupils.
They maintained that behavioral anomalies such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders were impeding pupils' education and had forced schools to hire mental health experts, develop special educational plans and provide extra training for teachers.
Here in Argentina just days after that report, two teenagers died from taking part in the so-called "blackout challenge" on TikTok.
It begs the question: who is responsible for the damage done to children and young adults? The parents, website owners or government oversight bodies?
Deprive young people of digital access and you are broadly excluding them from modern life
Children and teenagers perform many of their daily tasks with help from social media, as well as educational, gaming and commercial websites. Deprive them of digital access and you are broadly excluding them from modern life. Yet the tools that help them can also pose dangers.
Keep in mind that the tech giants are not here to educate, entertain or connect our children, but win their attention and harvest personal data from which they profit. Children are a lucrative group of users and platforms have no interest in impeding their entry. They will also ignore unwanted side effects like their websites' impact on self-esteem and mental health, digital crimes such as cyberbullying, injuries and even deaths from viral challenges like the said blackout challenge.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees in 2018.
Sanctions not fines
There is a specific law in the United States that requires parental consent for minors using the web and obligates firms to protect the privacy and security of under 13s. But kids need only fake their age and identity, and create an online profile without raising alarms, and firms prefer paying fines for breaking the law to applying it. The state is satisfied with its norms and believes it has done its part, and ultimately there is very little protection for children from a range of threats online.
Entrusting tech firms exclusively with the task of protecting children doesn't seem the best idea, nor is it enough to fine them after they break the law or harm is done. Parents will also find it difficult to check on their children around the clock. All you need is a smartphone and privacy in your bedroom for a child to be alone and vulnerable when challenged to hold their breath for as long as they can.
So far, firms were the only ones forced to pay up when harm done online was established, but former Facebook employees have said that the product in question was designed to be addictive. This was ratified in a court action from 2021 that revealed that Instagram had ditched internal research indicating it was a "toxic" environment for many youngsters and harmful to their mental health.
It should make us think about the responsibility of those who take such decisions. Application of penal sanctions on the owners and directors of tech firms whose products tend to be addictive and harmful to the mind would be more effective than the fines tech firms have faced so far.
*Graiewski is a family lawyer in Buenos Aires, with a PhD in private law.