When we initially signed up for social media all those years ago, joining involved allowing social media companies certain permissions to access and analyze our data. At the time, signing such a contract with the companies seemed like a positive thing, as it would allow algorithms to connect us based on our relationships, our interests and how we lived our lives, which is how the platforms were initially advertising.
Today, we know these social media sites aren’t simply using our data to improve their services. For years, they’ve collected cookies and gathered our information to sell. And they’re still doing it, more flagrantly and less ethically than ever. I know I still remember Cambridge Analytica’s actions in 2016, for instance. In the resulting five years, things haven’t exactly improved.
What makes this much worse is the recent news from earlier this autumn that Facebook leadership knew several of its services, most prominently Instagram, were negatively impacting youth mental health at the same time it appealed and advertised to youths and children as low as 13 to sign up for their services, trying to grow its userbases. In the process of signing up for the service, these minors need to agree to the permissions the same as the rest of us, signing the same contract.
This becomes especially concerning, and potentially problematic, in the context that almost every state in our country, minors cannot legally sign contracts. Almost every agreement made between a social media company and a minor is technically unenforceable — meaning all of the content Facebook is collecting from children is obtained unethically, if not illegally. As if Facebook’s ethical issues couldn’t get worse, they’re effectively stealing data from children.
This may not be explicitly illegal behavior, but it only further underscores the ethical issues continuing to swarm Facebook and its platform. In an environment focused on putting profits over people — an environment where the company knew its platforms could harm the very clients it sought to attract, and did nothing to prevent that harm — having children as young as 13 agree to terms and conditions they likely don’t understand, or even read, feels like typical, expected behavior.
Instead of taking action to rectify this situation and focus on a pragmatic solution, in the midst of a media firestorm and a barrage of criticism, the company simply changed its name to Meta. This was a clear attempt to distract and downplay the damaging whistleblower accusations, corroborated by in-company documents, and no amount of advertising through its new commercial can distract.
Today, every 13-year-old who signs up for Facebook, Instagram, Oculus or any of Meta’s platforms may not know they’re agreeing to the service collecting heaps of data and intruding on their privacy, with that data then sold to whoever finds it valuable.
Even the process of quitting Facebook shows its focus on data collection. If you attempt to delete your profile, Facebook says the process could take up to three months — but if you “deactivate” it, where Facebook retains your data, the process can be instant.
Knowing how Meta has used its algorithms to twist our personal information and sell advertisements, this cannot be accepted any more. Meta and its affiliates must stop gathering data from minors and must especially stop its practice of using that data for advertising, or connecting minors to content that can worsen their wellbeing. Amid the national and statewide youth mental health crisis, it’s clear that Facebook’s unethical, harmful and wrong behavior has only contributed to worsening it.