23rd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

Childhood Curiosity Has Sparked Marvels. Social Media Could Shut It Down.

When the U.S. surgeon general issued a warning recently about the effects of social media on childhood mental health, and in April, when four U.S. senators introduced a bill requiring social media companies to restrict access to many children, they were giving political weight to a concern that has long been central to the American experiment: that childhood should be a protected time for development of the self. 

Putting aside whether such laws would be enforceable, not to mention constitutional, they should be understood, like so many other attempts to rein in the internet, as hearkening back to our nation’s roots as an Enlightenment experiment. For it was in these early efforts to sanctify the dignity of the individual that we began uniquely to see childhood as a separate sphere of life cordoned off from full maturity, covered with a veil of protection, and subject to a program of nurture. Before the Enlightenment, children in most parts of the world were likely to be seen as “adults in waiting.” As the Enlightenment’s first experiment in government, the American idea focused instead on the opportunity to slowly develop its youth to discover their own unique destinies. In a very real sense, then, it could be said that America “invented” childhood.

Like much of the American experiment, it took a while to be realized, particularly since it went up against the long-held belief that childhood, like “idleness,” was the “devil’s playground.” Yet by the early 20th century, the nation had refined this new philosophy to include mandatory universal education (extending childhood to include the newly discovered “teenager”), child labor laws, and burgeoning markets in clothing, toys, games, and popular culture tailored to children’s interests. At root was a growing willingness to let the child’s fancy roam freely, and to see play not as distraction from life, but rather an essential part of it. In 1890, the newly conceived Society for the Study of Child Nature met to consider if a child’s imagination, increasingly being appreciated for its “inventiveness,” might be stunted by demanding that children “adhere strictly to the truth.”

The benefits of a child-centered society have been enormous. Indeed, childhood wanderings, unimpeded by adult burdens, proved to be the source of some of the nation’s greatest achievements in science, culture, business, and innovation. Many of the early radio pioneers made crucial developments as teenagers, including David Sarnoff, who went to work for Guglielmo Marconi at age 15. Later, as the chairman of RCA, Sarnoff founded NBC. Inspired, like so many youths of the time, by Ray Stannard Baker’s 1899 The Boy’s Book of Inventions, Edwin Armstrong built a 125-foot antenna in the backyard of his family’s Yonkers, New York home, the better to communicate with other teenage wireless enthusiasts. Armstrong would go on to invent FM radio.

Television, too, owes its beginnings to the adolescent imagination, this one belonging to 15-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth when he approached his high school chemistry instructor with a drawing for the first “image dissector,” a device that scans lines to transmit a picture. Farnsworth later claimed that he got the idea by observing the steady, horizontal crop rows on his family’s Idaho potato farm.

Superman was dreamt up by two nerdy teenagers at Glenville High School in Cleveland. Long before he became known as the “King of Soul,” a 12-year-old Sam Cooke was singing Ink Spots hits like “If I Didn’t Care” from a soap box at the corner of Cottage Grove and 35th Street in Chicago, while his brother passed the hat to passengers exiting from the neighborhood streetcar. (Cooke had conquered stage fright by singing to a collection of popsicle sticks he planted in the ground and called his “audience.”) As the daughter of a local oil producer in western Pennsylvania, Ida Tarbell watched her father’s business get squashed by John D. Rockefeller. Convinced, at 15, that privilege inevitably led to corruption and injustice, Tarbell went on to become one of the first groundbreaking investigative journalists in American history, with her greatest achievement a takedown of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

In 1958, when Stephen King was 11, his mother spent $35 on a used typewriter for him. A couple of years later, he and his friend, Chris Chesley, self-published a collection of stories they called “People, Places, and Things.” It included King’s “The Thing at the Bottom of the Well,” about an “ugly mean little wretch” of a boy who “dearly loved plaguing the dog and cat, pulling wings from flies and watching worms squirm as he slowly pulled them apart.” If that sounds like the beginning of a career in horror fiction, well, of course, it is.

The youthful imagination makes innovation possible because children do things they are not supposed to do, long before they learn they are not supposed to do them. But if innovation needs the childhood imagination, childhood imagination needs safety, privacy, a sanctuary from the tyranny of watchful eyes. The problem with social media, then, is not the “media”—Stephen King’s musings utilized a typewriter, the radio pioneers required wires, and even little Sam Cooke needed a soap box and a street corner—but the “social.” For most of our history it was adults who were disrupting the child’s bubble. Now there are so many more intruders: peers, bots, algorithms, and salivating marketers.

Social media data is so valuable, and so readily monetized, that it does to modern children what medieval overseers did to children: It draws them into a system that puts them to work. Imagination? No, as Rep. Jay Obernolte (R., Calif.) said at March’s TikTok hearings, social media companies “gather user data, then use powerful A.I. tools to make eerily accurate predictions of human behavior” and—here is the core injury—“manipulate that behavior.” The company has said it has taken steps to protect children, including by putting time limits on how long they can use the platform. But anyone who has raised a child in the past 25 years can attest to the damage social media can do to children. The task now is to take in the damage to our national ethos.

The late social critic Neil Postman warned us a generation ago that technology was leading to the “disappearance of childhood.” (And he was focused on the evils of television!) He wrote that we had “childified” adults and “adultified” children, and that the consequences, in the long run, would be devastating. Postman described technological change as “neither additive nor subtractive,” but “ecological,” citing how the arrival of the printing press did not mean that we had “old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” Recognizing just how important childhood has been to our nation and the threat to it posed by our technological age, I shudder to think of what America would be without children, but this is certain: It would be a very different America.

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