About ‘social media is like driving a car’ analogy

Facebook’s intent to build an Instagram for kids, aimed at children between 10 and 12 (and Instagram is open to people starting age 13) has been in news since March 2021.

It is in the eye of a storm more recently given the recent reports from The Wall Street Journal. As the CNBC news report says,

(Facebook is pausing the launch of Instagram for kids) “after an explosive Wall Street Journal report showed Facebook repeatedly found its Instagram app is harmful to many teenagers. The Journal cited Facebook studies over the past three years that examined how Instagram affects its young user base, with teenage girls being most notably harmed.

One internal Facebook presentation said that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the issue to Instagram.”

While all this is playing out, it is an open secret that kids younger than 13 easily and effortlessly join Instagram (besides other social media platforms) by simply stating their age as 13 and above. And Facebook has no way to check such usage anyway or does not care to check and remove them either.

The larger problem escaping all our attention is something far, far serious. Let me illustrate that with a really awkward comparison made by Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s head. He said,

“We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar.”

A lot of people have called out Adam’s analogy as being wrong in multiple ways. For instance,

To be fair, Adam himself agreed on Twitter that his analogy was stretched.

But beyond the basic explanation of why this analogy is stretched at an industry level, there is a fundamental problem being overlooked here.

It is about entry price/cost.

Cars cost money. In fact, every aspect of driving involves money that you need to spend. And, driving involves a learning curve.

Facebook does not cost money. No social media platform asks for your money to join them. And it is assumed that there is no learning curve to be on Facebook (or any social media platform). (this is obviously a fallacy that most people don’t even comprehend)

Let me address the money part first.

All social media platforms, whether for kids or adults, are totally free. There is zero cost involved to join these platforms if you overlook the non-platform related costs like the cost of bandwidth/internet access and the cost of the device. Here, the device is not equal to the car, within the driving analogy – Facebook IS the car because that is what the end-user starts operating.

Devices are getting cheaper and more accessible than ever before and bandwidth is made available so very effortlessly across the world. Having taken care of those, for anyone to get on to Facebook or Instagram, it takes less than a minute.

And because it is free, we neither expect anything from it (car’s equivalent is mobility – getting from point A to point B) nor do we imagine that we need to put in structured thinking to indulge in the usage. It’s free, and we can try to do whatever we think is appropriate on the platforms. Even the benefits of using social media platforms are very loosely articulated and understood – the negatives are spoken about more often, in very concrete terms!

The real equivalent with the automobile analogy is this: handing over the keys to millions of cars to kids and adults who have not learned driving and letting them try driving and learn as they go. Result: a chaos of epic proportions.

That brings me to the second part: the learning curve.

Because social media platforms are entirely free, no one even bothers to consider that they may need some kind of basic training before people are allowed to use them.

The usual thinking goes: Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? LinkedIn? What is there, eh? Just join – takes a few seconds. See what others do. Try doing those things. If something happens and you like it, continue it. Or, if you don’t like something, stop doing that or drop off the platforms.

It’s basically ‘Monkey See and Money Do’. It has been like that for every one of us, adults, or kids.

Now, you may ask, ‘What is there to learn about a free social media platform?’.

Some of the more serious, illegal things to know and learn properly to deal with—cyber-stalking, phishing, privacy-related disclosures, location-related disclosures, Catfishing, and so on—too are never formally taught to anybody ever before they join such platforms. They always eventually get to know about them either based on their own curiosity, from other people’s experiences, or because they were victims and learn it the hard way. Either way, we are leaving this to chance, and not to any structure or process.

Besides those things, there are many, many nuances that should be taught, particularly to children, before they are able to join one or more free social media platforms.

Joining a platform is not like tuning in to a TV program on Netflix to see how it is and try out if you like it. Watching a show to try it is a one-way activity. Joining a social media platform can end up as a 2-way activity – you hear others saying something and you can end up saying something too.

Most people do not understand the gravity of this 2-way activity. Here’s a simple analogy.

Take a 12-year-old kid, for instance. He (or she) could be leading a sheltered life with the parents and would be communicating on a daily basis with parents, neighbors, relatives, school friends, and so on. Take that kid, and get him/her to say something to a crowd of 100,000 people, and those people could also talk back to the kid.

That’s the nature of social media platforms. The big difference is that the kid is, all of a sudden, being exposed to a world full of strangers, far removed from the few familiar people he/she is usually accustomed to talking to. There are also known-strangers in their lives – for instance, students from the school, but not his/her class – they are quasi-known within the institution of the school.

But online, on social media platforms, the whole world is their audience. How should they deal with attention—all kinds—from so many diverse people with completely different backgrounds, ages, orientations, philosophies, and attitudes? This is not something we prepare children for, even though we are extremely cautious about this possibility in the offline world.

To invoke the car/driving analogy again, this would be like getting the kid to join a driving school, learn the rules of the road, the road signs, the dangers of poor/fast driving, among others, and then handing over the keys to a car for them to try driving for the first time on their own, in an empty road.

Does the equivalent happen for kids before they join a social media platform? Obviously not. I reckon this is what Facebook is probably trying—the empty road equivalent—with Instagram for kids, though I don’t think they have thought through the contours adequately.

Also observe – a driving test and all the related learnings are institutionalized and commonly accepted across the world. There is a set process that every country follows.

For social media platforms, parents do whatever they think is appropriate, if at all they do. Else, it is a free-for-all – the kids try their luck and get on with whatever they experience.

This is why the Instagram-for-kids idea is plain horrendous. Though they can most definitely already join with or without a separate product, which makes it all the worse. And this is not just about Instagram – a recent Wall Street Journal report demonstrated how Tik Tok serves the most inappropriate things to minors! You can try this yourself – open any social media platform and look at the recommended content – for instance, open Instagram, click on the magnifying glass icon (search) and see the recommended videos. That is what Instagram thinks you need based on your browsing habit!

What makes it even more bizarre is that it is not just the kids who need the training to use social media – the adults do too! And no one even bothers thinking on those lines, and simply jump into any and every free platform online and try their luck! Why is that pointless? I have written about that earlier. See:

What is the price/fee you pay for being active on social media?

Stranger in the…

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