When I was a boy, my mother refused to let me connect the internet to our old warhorse computer. “I don’t want strangers in the house,” she’d say. Our submarine-sized Hewlett-Packard was, rather, a walled-off secret garden. Inside, Microsoft Word, Oregon Trail, and Encarta danced hand in hand like virginal muses. Still, I pined for the four-toned twang of a dial-up line. I want to be able to, I don’t know, do whatever it is kids used to do on the internet. Not having a connection made the connected world seem numinous and amazing.
How did that work out for us? Well, today my mother is constantly connected to her iPad, which she calls her device, and I wither like a flower when my face is not illumined by the blue-wave spectra of a computer screen. So, not so well, apparently. But with a leaked data scandal enveloping Facebook and Facebook enveloping the world, I realize perhaps my mom was right after all. It is too late for me and, probably, too late for my kids too.
They still crave the connectivity social media offers. And if my own upbringing offers any lessons it’s that the harder one tries to hide something from one’s child, the stronger the hunger for that thing becomes. Pokemon cards or Facebook, I tell my sons the same thing, “I want doesn’t get.” And yet, Facebook presents a special case. Facebook has transcended the internet. It’s transcended the ethernet. It is now the ether. It has become, to the extent America has one, the American agora. It’s how we keep in touch with acquaintances, friends, family, frenemies, and enemies. It’s where we stalk our exes and talk about what sex is and what we think of Lexuses and what real Tex Mex ought to taste like. It’s where we vent, troll, share, skulk, and gawk.
It’s also a data-collecting behemoth presided over by one man — younger than I am, though with a strong hoodie game — that recently admitted to sharing the personal data of 87 million users, the vast majority of whom did not explicitly (though uncomprehendingly) assent to such sharing. As has become increasingly clear, the cost for our connection has been the seizure of all of our personal data so that it can be sold to third parties and used to spit messages back to us urging us to buy this or that product or President.
So the question I now face — earlier that I thought I would — is when do I visit the hell-scape of Facebook upon them? When do I alert Monsieur Zuckerberg of their presence? When, that is, do I allow them to trade convenience for any semblance of privacy? Undergirding this question are at least two assumptions. First is the assumption that because something is pervasive and exists we must allow it to enter the mind-stream of our children. Secondly is the assumption that Facebook will continue to exist in the near- and the far-term. Neither of these is a given.
Take the first, for example. There are many things that exist but that I keep far from my children. The horrors of war. The imminent doom of mankind. The existence of Carrot Top’s comedy. That is, I’ll keep them from those horrors until the time when they can adequately process it. The same goes for Facebook. There is no reason they need to engage with it right now. And, to the second point, I hope that, by the time they do, Facebook will have changed. Hell, maybe it will be gone. Maybe we’ll live in a post-post era.
Likely not and, either way, there will be more Facebooks to come and other algorithmic Faustian bargains made one click at a time. My job, as a parent, is to help them understand that there is always a trade-off. Perhaps because my mother was so militantly anti-connection I never understood that nuance. So when I signed up for Facebook — and Friendster, Myspace, Tinder, Bumble, Lyft, Uber, Twitter, Tumblr, Hinge, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Pinterest — it was perhaps just too early to know this. Now that I do, I’ve deleted my account. But the particular platform is almost immaterial. There will always be a trade to be made. The best approach, in my view, is to familiarize my sons with this basic logic. Platforms are the parlay, exchanging ease and a sense of connectivity with the world with one’s own privacy.
According to Facebook’s own policy, at six and four-and-a-half, my kids are at least seven years away from registering for accounts of their own. When they do, the language around the terms and conditions will have shifted significantly. However, the fundamental logic won’t.
For now, it’s a matter of savvying my little dudes to both sides of the equation, to wising them up that nothing — except parental love — is free, that they must be aware not only of what they’re surrendering in order to be “liked” but that they might not know what they’re surrendering. To quote the Sufi poet Rummy, “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.” Or as they say in boxing, “It’s the punch you don’t see that knocks you out.” Whatever sweat-shirted overlord — or hopefully overlady — has figured out how to exploit the human need for connection for profit by the time my kids are old enough to sign up for an account, they’ll likely have done so by obfuscation and exploitation.
Let’s face it, according to Moore’s Law, in seven years, we Facebook-era geezers probably won’t have a clue what high-tech connective platform our children will be using. I’m almost positive it’ll include AI and AR and VR and whatever other R is all the rage. Yet equipped with a skeptical mind and a healthy distrust of a free lunch, your kids might think twice before scrolling down and clicking away their souls.