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Facebook’s Purpose Is Digital Addiction

How concerns about the social-media platform's targeting of younger users apply to everything it does

Justin Sullivan / Getty

In early December of last year, Facebook unveiled its newest product: a version of its Messenger app aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds. The first app from a social network aimed at children, Messenger Kids was designed so that under-13s, who are barred from most of Facebook’s core features, can safely video chat and text with their friends—and, of course, become dedicated users well before they hit puberty.

In a release announcing the new product, Facebook painted Messenger Kids in gentle, parent-pleasing hues—the release, with a seemingly hand-drawn neon logo made it look more like Facebook was announcing a new Nickelodeon show. Citing conversations with “thousands of parents, associations like National PTA, and parenting experts,” Messenger Kids was initially pitched as a way for kids to talk to their parents and grandparents, just in a new way: “Whether it’s using video chat to talk to grandparents, staying in touch with cousins who live far away, or sending mom a decorated photo while she’s working late to say hi, Messenger Kids opens up a new world of online communication to families.” And who could argue with that?

But there are a number of problems with this plan and most of them are fairly self-evident. Facebook has long struggled to moderate content, a flaw that recently manifested itself in over 100 million users seeing content pushed by Russian-backed accounts during the 2016 election. More than anything else, though, it’s just not clear what need this product is filling. I mean, was a lack of a kids’ Facebook platform really what was preventing kids from talking to their grandparents? Facebook clearly gets something from the app, in the form of users who spend the whole of their conscious lives availing themselves of its products. What’s less clear, however, is what families get from this “new form of communication.”

This dynamic, in which Facebook gets a lot and users get little, is increasingly familiar for the recently embattled social network. But Messenger Kids has also opened up a sensitive new front in the Facebook backlash, raising questions not just about Facebook’s suitability for children, but for what it does to all of our brains. The debate over Messenger Kids also shows that Facebook is now fighting a two-front war—testifying before Congress about its inability to moderate political content while facing growing questions about its addictive qualities and effect on mental health.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time, from Facebook’s perspective, for a war with parents. Since 2016, Facebook has been criticized for censoring a photograph of “Napalm girl,” for its lack of transparency on civil rights issues, and for being oversensitive toward criticism of white men while doing little to protect hate speech against other groups. Users have begun to spend less time on the site, because spending time on Facebook makes you feel bad—and because it increasingly resembles an unhinged comment thread with nearly two billion participants. But the biggest problems facing Facebook are political.

First, there’s a growing sense that Capitol Hill is more willing to take on economic-power concentration than it has been in decades. While the nation is still likely years away from concerted political action against any of the big tech companies, politicians have begun to kick the tires of Google and Facebook, in particular. In the case of the latter, that inquiry has centered on the ease with which Russian agents were able to weaponize the social network, disseminating possibly election-altering propaganda over a period of months without spurring any action from Facebook. Facebook has already been summoned to the Hill to answer questions about 2016. But questions about election interference have led to a larger discussion about social media’s psychological effects.

In November, an aide from Senator Mark Warner’s office organized a briefing by tech critics Tristan Harris and Zeynep Tufekci, who made the case that “many technology platforms actively condition user behavior, designing (and refining) products to be intentionally habit-forming.” (Warner, who serves as vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been interested in Facebook’s psychological effects for years.) In an interview with Axios that same month, early Facebook investor Sean Parker blasted the company for “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Apple CEO Tim Cook, meanwhile, told The Guardian that he doesn’t allow his nephew to use social media.

The furious response to Messenger Kids, which has been growing for the last two months, builds on these arguments. On Tuesday, a group of health organizations and experts sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to discontinue Messenger Kids. “Raising children in our new digital age is difficult enough,” the letter reads. “We ask that you do not use Facebook’s enormous reach and influence to make it even harder. ... [Children] are not old enough to navigate the complexities of online relationships, which often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts even among more mature users.”

Speaking to MIT Technology Review, Harris was even more pointed. “It’s like Coca-Cola inventing a kids’ soda product,” he said. “It still has to sell sugar; it can’t really be genuinely concerned with the well-being of kids.” While there are justified concerns about Facebook’s ability to moderate content aimed at children—YouTube Kids, perhaps the closest analogy to Messenger Kids, is basically a dystopia—this is the core argument against Facebook: It’s too addictive for children and it warps their brains.

An angry and motivated group of parents could start a political war against Facebook Messenger, citing its potentially deleterious effects. It’s not quite clear what the right analogy here is—but I’d say it falls somewhere between music with explicit lyrics and tobacco.

Any fight against Facebook’s effect on children would only be aided by a growing bipartisan distrust of tech. While critics on the left are concerned about economic power, those on the right are pushing a narrative that Silicon Valley oppresses conservatives. While those critiques don’t exactly line up with the ones being made by concerned parents, it’s not hard to imagine a push for governmental action earning a bipartisan reception on Capitol Hill. And, while “Facebook makes everyone less happy” has not quite caught on, “Facebook is bad for children” is much sharper—it’s also the kind of thing that gets the attention of politicians. To an extent, it already has—Senator Ed Markey is working to commission a study that would examine how social media affects children.

But what Facebook should be most concerned about is the fact that this growing hostility neatly summarizes a far larger critique of Facebook. It is, as Facebook surely realizes, not just a criticism that applies to younger users—and that’s partly why it’s so damaging. Facebook is not simply addictive or potentially damaging to those under 13. It is to everyone.